Toronto-based choreographer and dancemaker Esie Mensah says that she likes to “poke people with her art.” You’ll know what she means if you’ve seen any of her previous creations, such as A Revolution of Love, in which a crew of Black female dancers take over Fort York National Historic Site in celebratory Afro-fusion movement.
Her latest work, the short film Tessel, which premiered online on June 1st (the one-year anniversary of Black Out Tuesday), pokes in a different way. Developed out of honest conversation, the film intimately captures individual and collective healing among 14 Black dancemakers across Canada through movement and words. Co-presented by Fall for Dance North and Harbourfront Centre, the project has become an unprecedented statement of national unity around the Black artistic community, garnering the support of 21 additional Canadian dance presenters. After a particularly difficult year rocked by a global pandemic and historic events in the ongoing fight against systemic anti-Black racism, Tessel comes as a positive reimagining of what is possible when cultural institutions transform their equity statements into tangible action.
Speaking to Mensah on the phone from Toronto, she describes how Tessel was an opportunity to authentically connect to the lived experiences of Black dance artists across Canada. For Mensah, being willing to ask difficult questions and tap into personal struggles has led to her success in the dance world. A pioneer in the Afro-fusion dance style with clients including Rihanna and Drake, Mensah has spoken out about racial inequities she’s experienced in the dance industry due to shadism, an issue that she drew attention to in a powerful TEDxToronto talk in 2019 and which she also explored in her Dora-nominated dance work “Shades.”
Laying the emotional groundwork for Tessel, Mensah brought the 14 dancemakers together in conversation for seven hours, over the span of two days, with facilitator Nicole Inca Hamilton and spiritual advisor Samson Bokeabantu Brown, where they spoke about grief, loss, ritual, rage, rest, and futurism. “This was the first time that we were creating a cross-national network of Black artists,” says Mensah, who both directs and performs in the film. Out of the ideas that emerged, each creator produced a short solo that they filmed themselves and was edited together with excerpts from the conversation and sound design by Meg Roe.
What viewers will find in Tessel is a wide spectrum of movement styles and expressions of what it means to be a Black artist and person living in this time. The group included artists from different generations from the fields of hip hop, street dance, ballet, jazz, tap, West African dance, aerial acrobatics, contemporary, Afro-fusion, and burlesque.
Vancouver-based contemporary dancer Livona Ellis, who has been with Ballet BC for nine seasons and whose solo project with Canadian choreographer Mary-Louise Albert was postponed due to Covid-19, remarked on how valuable it was, especially during a time of isolation, to be able to connect intimately with other Black dance artists. Her improvisational solo in Tessel is based on the texture of push and pull, “a feeling of trying to break out of my skin, playing with breath, and coming through my skin,” she says.
For Ravyn Wngz, a Tanzanian, Bermudian, Mohawk, 2 Spirit burlesque/contemporary dancer based in Toronto who runs Ill Nana DiverseCity Dance Company and is also a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Canada, Tessel was an invitation to a space that was “open, joyful, and empathetic,” qualities that Wngz associates with Esie Mensah. Speaking with Wngz on the phone in Toronto, she describes recurring themes in the conversation: “I listened to what people were offering and I found there was a lot of apology—we’re made to apologize for things we’re not actually sorry for like our skin color or our discomfort due to micro-aggressions that show up in our workplaces and spaces.” She pauses, then adds, “I shatter that.” As an Afro-Indigenous, trans dancer, Wgnz’s solo is an offering of safety and visual representation with the hopes that those who are watching “feel validated in how [they feel] and what they’ve been going through.”
Making space for these individual Black experiences is just one way that Mensah counters misrepresentation within the Black community, what she describes as, “the monolith that is Black Culture and how institutions engage with that ideology.” As she reflects on the transformative process of creating the film, which has charted a new way forward for how Black dance artists can work with presenters, she says, “A Revolution of Love opened up the door for people [and we realized] we can take over these historic sites, we can be ourselves, we can see ourselves multiplied. And then, once that door is open, there’s a maze or labyrinth that we have to walk through. This conversation [in Tessel] is the map to get through the labyrinth. The film is that map.”
From June 1, 2021, watch Tessel for free here (streaming in Canada only).