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Art on The Mart

In downtown Chicago, 100-foot-tall dancers glide along the Chicago River. Projected onto the enormous digital installation Art on The Mart, the dancers of the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project look like ancestral spirits keeping watch over the city.

Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project, 2023. Courtesy of Art on The Mart

The Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project is an initiative launched in 2019 to strengthen, connect, and preserve Chicago's Black dance community. Celebrating Chicago's rich dance history, the project also addresses inequities in cultural funding which have historically excluded Black dancers, choreographers, and dance styles. The organization brings together a cohort of established Chicago dance companies to provide them with financial resources, advocacy, the development of an archive, and high-visibility performance opportunities. 

The Project's most recent performance for Art on The Mart—which at 2.5 acres is the largest digital art platform in the world—highlights this mission. Entitled "The Big Bang: Movement Theory + the Black Dancing Body," the dance film travels through space and time to tell the story of Black dance in America. 

“This is the artistic work that is a cultural retention for Black people who were taken away, weren't allowed to dance, and weren't allowed to drum,” said Princess Mhoon, Director of the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project who conceptualized and oversaw the creation of “The Big Bang.” 

Featuring all ten companies which make up this year's cohort, “The Big Bang” begins in Africa, makes its way across the ocean through the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and arrives finally in the present-day United States. Interwoven are performances of traditional West African dance, liturgical dance, jazz, tap, Chicago-born footwork, and more. 

“You see an ancestor turn into a contemporary dancer and how the movements have influenced each other over time,” Mhoon said. “It's a way to show that we're all connected.”

Princess Mhoon. Photograph by Matt Karas

Ancestral connection through the arts is something Mhoon learned early on. Born on the South Side of Chicago during the Chicago Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, both of her parents were artists who were deeply socially and historically conscious.  

“This was the Black is Beautiful Revolution,” Mhoon said. “My mom shaved her head; she and my father changed their names; they were shedding some of the 'slave names’—that's what they called it. They were really in search of identity.” 

Her father was a musician—“one of the most sought-after in the city!” Mhoon loved her father's music: As a child, she wouldn't go to bed until he came home and started playing the drums. 

Mhoon's mother enrolled her in dance classes, and she began studying African dance with Muntu Dance Theatre (a current member of the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project). According to Mhoon, these early dance classes were incredibly influential. 

"Another thing about Chicago is the gun violence—my father was shot and killed when I was eight. I am a success story of how dance can change your life and change your trajectory," Mhoon said. 

Upon completing high school, Mhoon attended Howard University as one of the university's first dance majors. There, she encountered many more “dance ancestors.”

“At Howard, we had really strong connections to some of the early pioneers,” Mhoon said. “Pearl Primus came; we volunteered at the Katherine Dunham Conference and I sat at the feet of Dunham.”

In addition to practical dance training, the dance major required lots of research and writing. Mhoon enjoyed this part of her studies; However, she noticed that something was missing. 

Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago. Photograph by Matt Karas

“I said, where are all the Chicago people in the books? All the people who taught me, they weren't in the books,” she said. 

Out of college, Mhoon toured professionally as a performer, began choreographing, and eventually returned to Washington, D.C. to establish her own dance school, the Princess Mhoon Dance Institute, which in 2016 was invited by First Lady Michelle Obama to perform at the White House.

Meanwhile, she remained committed to her native city. She pursued a master's in history, and wrote a thesis focused on Black dance in Chicago, hoping to fill some of the gaps found in her college textbooks. In 2019, she was invited to lead the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project and jumped at the offer. She now works between Chicago and Washington D.C. 

Cynthia Noble, founding eexecutive director of Art on The Mart, met Mhoon in 2022 when Noble asked her to join Art on The Mart's curatorial committee for Chicago's Year of Dance. Not long after, Noble selected Mhoon to create her own work for the Mart.  

“There's this rich, deep, historical set of contributions that Chicagoans, and Black Chicagoans in particular, have made to the dance world,” Noble said. “It's about amplifying these contributions.”  

Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project, 2023. Courtesy of Art on The Mart

Noting that “‘The Big Bang’ was an ambitious project,” Noble decided to defer its premiere to this year to ensure plenty of development time. She also paired the choreographers with video-mappers who helped them decide how they might use the digital space. Mhoon and the Project's choreographers were excited by this challenge, as part of the mission of the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project is to push the creative boundaries of its members. 

“It expands you artistically,” Enneréssa Davis said of her experience with the Project. Her company, Praize Productions, is in its first year with the cohort. “It makes other opportunities accessible that wouldn't otherwise be possible for a small nonprofit.” 

Regina Perry-Carr, who is the artistic director of Muntu Dance Theatre, echoes Davis's sentiment. Muntu Dance was in the inaugural cohort of the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project and is now celebrating its second turn. 

“Muntu Dance, we are the keepers of the African dance tradition, but you don’t see West African dance elevated at the same rate as other forms,” Perry-Carr said. “What I love most about [being a part of the cohort] is the advocacy, the opportunity to represent the spirit of Black dance.” 

Mhoon agrees that this sense of and pride in identity is essential to the Project, as well as to her, personally. 

“As African Americans, we don't really know where we're from,” Mhoon said. "That is something that a lot of people don't understand—to not know who you are, and then to be treated a certain negative way. 

“This work is very close to my heart: I understand myself a little bit more from doing this work.” 

Cecilia Whalen


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