Dance Haiti!

The magic that happens at Dance Haiti! is too good to keep to ourselves. Here's what happened this year. 

2012 Report Back

Jean Appolon is a Haitian-American who is passionate about rebuilding Haiti’s rich culture of dance. July 2012 marked the first time since the 2010 earthquake that Jean was able to run his annual Summer Dance Institute to the same scale he has done in previous years, beginning in 2006. The Jean Appolon Summer Dance Institute 2012, which is free of charge to all participants, began on July 2nd with an open audition attended by approximately 50 students.

Jean Appolon and Meghan McGrath (one of Jean’s dancers from his Boston-based company) arrived to Port-au-Prince in time to audition potential participants. Local support staff had helped to get the word out by posting flyers at local schools, cultural institutions and dance studios. Even still, the turnout for the audition was not as numerous as expected, possibly because of the loss of momentum that had been created since the earthquake. In light of this and knowing he had space for 50 dancers to participate in the Institute, Jean accepted each and every student who had turned up that day, after putting all of them through the rigors of the audition.

Similar to previous years, The Jean Appolon Summer Dance Institute 2012 was hosted by ENARTS (Ecole Nationale des Artes), Haiti’s major post-secondary school for the arts, located in the center of Port-au-Prince. ENARTS recently welcomed a new General Director, Mr. Philippe Dodard, who was extremely supportive of the Dance Institute and most days stopped by the studio to snap photos on his digital camera, which could later be found on ENARTS’ Facebook page. Jean and his team were warmly received by all of the ENARTS staff, including dance department director, Gedard Samson, who was thrilled to be able to host a summer dance intensive of this caliber at the school.

In addition to their enthusiasm and overall support, ENARTS offered the Dance Institute the tremendous resource of their dance studio, which had been rehabilitated after the earthquake and is perhaps the only one of its kind in all of Haiti. Although there are certainly improvements that could be made to the space (especially better ventilation in the room that heats up like an oven and is enclosed by a tin roof), the studio has abundant space, a good wooden dance floor, mirrors, and dance barres.

With the students selected, the space available, and funds raised from generous donors from the U.S. who had contributed to an Indiegogo fundraising campaign, Jean Appolon and his team were ready to go to work. The day following the audition, the Institute began in earnest, with yoga from 9-10am, Modern (Horton/Dunham technique) from 10-11:30am, Haitian folkloric dance from 12:30-2pm, and repertoire from 2-4pm. Each day, the students were provided with a free lunch during the noontime break. This regimen continued for four weeks, every day, Monday through Friday.

Per his usual style, Jean set high standards from day one. All students were expected to dress in black dance attire, to arrive on time every day, to participate to their fullest potential, and to respect themselves and everyone else in the Institute. Students who were unable to meet the established expectations were kindly dismissed, which accounted for the fact that only 43 students out of 50 received completion certificates at the end of the Institute.

There was a mixed range of ability amongst the students but all of them exhibited the greatest fluency in Haitian folkloric dance, which is no surprise as it’s equivalent to their native tongue. It was during the Haitian folkloric classes that the energy in the studio reached its daily climax, with the five Haitian percussionists feeling the vibe as much as the many visitors who would assemble each day after lunch to stand witness to the vitality and beauty of Haitian dance and music.

t was interesting to note, however, that when the student participants were asked what they liked best about the Institute, they talked about how much they valued the yoga and Modern classes. This affirmed Jean’s approach, which has been to bring a comprehensive and high quality dance curriculum to his Haitian students who do not have adequate exposure to the type of well-rounded training required by today’s dancers.

Haitian folkloric dance is one of the country’s many cultural riches, but like most aspects of Haitian society, dance must be restored, preserved and advanced in order for it to survive and thrive as a precious cultural and artistic resource. Dance was once at a level where Haiti’s national companies toured the world; unfortunately the art form has faced a steady decline and is now in dire need of resuscitation. The preservation and advancement of Haitian folkloric dance can play its part in the “rebranding” of Haiti—a multi-sector effort to recast Haiti in a positive light and as worthy of economic investment. This can only happen by garnering support to develop resources that are unique to the country–Haitian folkloric dance and music, Haitian plastic arts, and Haitian cuisine, to name only a few.

Not only is Jean Appolon passionate about leading the effort to restore Haitian dance, he is uniquely qualified, with his own youth spent in Haiti, immersed in folkloric dance and his advanced training at some of the top dance schools in the U.S., including Ailey and Joffrey Ballet. When Jean’s students were asked for their ideas about how they thought the Summer Dance Institute could be expanded and improved, they clamored for more of everything: a year-round program instead of just four weeks; to have Jean Appolon open a dance school in Haiti; more access for students outside of Port-au-Prince in the provinces; and more access for students in Port-au-Prince’s toughest neighborhoods.

These are tall orders but they provide the motive to grow and expand the Summer Institute, which can only be done with wide-scale support coming from many directions, both inside and outside Haiti. Jean and his team were gratified by the many individuals who stepped forward and offered their helping hand in the effort, including two Haitian dance legends—Anthony Bayas and Pierre Ramses—who volunteered their time and expertise by teaching many of the Institute’s Haitian folkloric classes. In conversation with Bayas, he remarked, “I have to help Appolon. I must. I have no choice. It is my duty.” This type of solidarity is what is necessary, and bespeaks of a painful awareness that there are few Haitian dancers who still carry the flame that must be expertly passed on to the next generation before it dies out.

This year’s Institute was characterized by a newfound energy that perhaps reflects the feeling in the country as a whole that the present moment is one of recovery, rebirth and new possibilities, despite recent traumas and past suffering. This year, Jean returned to Haiti under the banner of Jean Appolon Expressions (JAE), the same name he uses for his dance company in Boston. Little did he know that the Haitian people would baptize his program in Haiti as “jae” (pronounced “jigh-yay”), which coincidentally means to dance joyfully in Haitian Creole!

The Institute’s visibility was greatly enhanced by Haiti’s embrace of the new and unanticipated “JAE brand” and an appearance by Jean (along with Meghan and two students from the Institute) on Regards Croises, a wildly popular Haitian talk show, which just happened to be written up in a feature article in The New York Times the week before (click here to view the NYT article). The episode aired several times on national television while the Institute was running and Jean innocently provided his phone number for any inquiries. Needless to say, the phone calls, texts and email messages have not stopped, with young people across Haiti calling to say that they would like to participate. The Regards Croises airings prompted further interest from Haitian media, as radio and print journalists, and tv reporters frequently stopped by to catch a few words from Jean between or after class.

The word was out that the institute would be culminating with a final performance (with free admission) at ENARTS on the afternoon of Friday, July 27th. For the occasion, ENARTS erected a beautiful outdoor stage in the shade of its leafy outdoor courtyard, which provided a lovely atmosphere for the approximately two hundreds spectators who gathered for the show. The mood was festive, celebratory and giddy with a nervous excitement. Before the students went to their improvised backstage area, Jean brought them all together in the studio where they had worked together for the past four weeks, and hand-in-tightly-clenched-hand, forming a big circle, he told them once again how much he believed in each one of them.

Special guests had gathered in the audience, including beloved Haitian singer, dancer and national treasure, Madame Emerante de Pradines Morse, and renowned Haitian violinist, Romel Joseph. After the performance got underway with welcome remarks from Jean and ENARTS Director, Philippe Dodard, the audience was treated to a full program that opened with a Modern choreography entitled “The Hope” (or “L’Espwa” in Haitian Creole), performed by a large ensemble of the Institute’s youngest dancers.

The other three dance works, all choreographed by Jean Appolon and accompanied by the Institute’s five percussionists, were interpretations of Haitian folkloric dances. With the dancers bedecked in vibrant multicolor costumes, “Congo” depicted flirtation and courting rituals between men and woman, and exhibited Haitian majesty and gaiety. “Maskawon” featured a dramatic contrast of six female dancers in long, flowing white skirts who mourned their dead, dressed in black. “Dahomey” closed the show—a powerful and athletic tour-de-force performed by six of the strongest male dancers in the Institute. The dance choreography was interspersed with a potpourri of theatrical skits that were created by the students themselves, incorporating dance, music and theatre, and demonstrating the virtuosity and multiple talents of the young students. (Click here for a video summary of the final performance).

The stage was set for one last round of thank yous as bouquets of flowers were presented to Philippe Dodard, other key ENARTS staff, and Stephanie Scherpf, who was present in Port-au-Prince for the preceding two weeks to help document the Institute and to assist Jean with all administrative aspects. The performance came to a very happy ending as each student was called to the stage to receive his or her Certificate of Achievement for having successfully completed The Jean Appolon Summer Dance Institute 2012.

During the certificate ceremony, Jean made heartfelt remarks about many of the students, once again exhibiting his love and dedication to the young people of his homeland. And while the students who participated in the 2012 Institute were perhaps not as technically proficient as groups from previous years, the 43 students seated on stage proudly displaying their certificates in front of an enthusiastic crowd following a highly successful performance made for a powerful statement.

As a send-off following the show, Jean had organized a simple but endearing reception for his students who each received a special Haitian dinner, a piece of cake decorated with the Jean Appolon Expressions logo, and a signature JAE t-shirt. It was clear that for most the Institute would be the highlight of their year, and there was a tremendous sense of satisfaction and happiness in the room.

With intense focus, discipline and dedication, the students had worked very hard for four consecutive weeks and their accomplishments were rewarded in numerous ways beyond the crowning glory of the successful performance, the certificates and the reception. Their bodies ached but had grown stronger and more pliable, and their dancing became more technically proficient and more artistically expressive. Some of the older students who lead or participate in their own small dance troupes will certainly take with them the cultural and technical knowledge they gained. During student interviews, some talked about the fact that the Institute had helped them overcome shyness while others said they had become more tolerant of their peers. Throughout it all, Jean kept telling them to breathe. After everything that Haiti and these young people have been through, that one, simple, life-affirming message, delivered in a constructive, and culturally and artistically rich environment, might be the most important one.

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