For Jean Appolon, immigration was an experience of chaos and trauma.
Appolon’s father was killed in Haiti for political reasons in 1991, he says, adding that he and his two brothers never found out the precise reason for their father’s murder, other than that he opposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. After that, the brothers went into hiding for several months.
During this time, a teacher encouraged him to cope through dance.
“I had a teacher where I used to dance in Haiti who told me, ‘You can do something with your life if you want to, but I don’t think you should let this situation become destructive to yourself and to society. Try to really use dance as a way to find therapy so you can move on,’” Appolon says. “This angel of mine, Vivianne Gauthier, she helped me to stay focused. I felt like she really saved my life.”
Appolon immigrated to Cambridge when he was 16, where he lived across the street from the Dance Complex in Central Square. There he studied contemporary dance, which brought him to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Joffrey American Ballet School in New York.
He broke off to start his own dance company, Jean Appolon Expressions, in 2009. The Cambridge-based company has been a chance for him to create art in his own style, a blend of Haitian folkloric dance—which is rooted in the ground and involves a heavy sense of spirituality—and contemporary dance.
Appolon channeled his experience of immigration, from terror and loss in Haiti to missing the sense of community he left behind there, into the company’s latest work. But “Vwayaj,” or “The Travel,” is about more than just Appolon’s story, or even the dancers’ stories.
The group held a workshop where they spoke with immigrants from countries all over the world, including Haiti, Japan, and Morocco. Their stories largely inspired “Vwayaj.” Recordings from them, alongside the voices of Appolon, the dancers, and acclaimed author Edwidge Danticat, overlay the music.
“The stories that I’m going to present, they’re not only folkloric stories. They are everyday life stories, they are social justice stories, they are empowerment stories,” Appolon says. “The work that we’re doing now, with ‘Vwayaj,’ is really talking about my immigrant experience, but also we talk about everybody’s immigrant experience, from Russia, Japan, from China, Africa, everywhere. The piece, we need it to be related to all these people from all over the world.”
The exploration of immigration stories is especially poignant in light of President Donald Trump’s harsh immigration stance and derogatory comments toward Haiti and other countries.
“After dealing with all this trauma that we deal with in Haiti, from earthquake, from coup after coup, from poverty, and all the stuff that I’ve seen, I really felt like coming to America was going to be the place where I would find peace, dignity, and hope,” he says. “I’m still hopeful, but I feel like, with this president, I feel like I’m facing Haiti again.”
Appolon says he hopes that his work can show the realities of Haiti. “I was really living with joy most of the time. Neighbors were family members … I grew up in communities. That’s something that I miss greatly, every day since I left Haiti.”
When asked how Appolon translates such complex topics into movement, he answers that it is his most natural form of expression.
“Dance is the only vehicle I know,” he says. “A teacher of mine from high school asked, ‘Why don’t you write?’ I said, ‘I would love to write, but I don’t think I’m a writer.’ For now, I really want to show it onstage, because that’s the only medium that I understand. It is a difficult process, but to me, that’s the easiest way that I can really express whatever story.”
“Vwayaj” will run at the Boston Center for the Arts from April 11-14. Tickets are $35.