Politically, economically and socially, 2020 was a disaster year. A global pandemic was backdrop to an eruption of violence and oppression suffered by people of colour and indigenous nations. But those hardships have given rise to an artistic expression of pride and determination.
Among the many artists who’ve been hard at work while theatres are dark is Esie Mensah, a Toronto dancer, choreographer, director and educator who comes with an impressive resumé that includes work with Rihanna, Drake, Arcade Fire and the Toronto Raptors, and a Dora nomination for her work Shades.
She has made TESSEL, the title taken from the word tessellate, which means to form a pattern of shapes that fit together lyrically and visually. The dance film, co-commissioned by Fall for Dance North and Harbourfront Centre, is both a showcase and a podium for 14 Black Canadian performers whose voices we hear over scenes of them dancing – in just about every dance genre you’d normally see on a stage. It is released online today, June 1, the first anniversary of Blackout Tuesday, a day in 2020 when arts organizations stopped their regular programming as a protest against racism.
“Art is a protection ritual,” says a man speaking over footage of Halifax performer Liliona Quarmyne dancing a willowy solo at dusk on a beach, the waves lapping behind her. “Dance is a protection ritual. So every time you dance you are creating a protection ritual for yourself.”
The narrative of this 15-minute film was stitched together from snippets of seven hours of conversations orchestrated by Mensah.
Viewers will easily identify with many of the voices heard here. “I’m learning what love really means,” a female voice explains. “I’m really trying to think about change and what that looks like,” says another. A man states, “When you hire me to do something, you hire all of me, not just what you see visibly.”
A range of genres, ages and Canadian regions are represented here among dancers who are not widely known in the theatre, except for elder statesman Ronald A. Taylor, moving stylishly in front of the pillars of Princes’ Gates at Toronto’s Exhibition Place.
Many revelations occur in this short piece, derived from the opening of hearts and minds among the 14 performers. “When you have what is called a ‘service heart’, you are constantly giving to and serving other people,” says a woman’s voice over the face and movements of Toronto performer Natasha Powell.
TESSEL boasts high production values. Voices overlay voices; Lisa La Touche’s tap-dancing feet overlay dances by Livona Ellis and Powell. Some dances are punctuated with a simple gesture, such as the fist that turns into a hand over the heart, an image created by Eugene “GeNie” Baffoe of Winnipeg.
One statement refers to the ancestors, making a moment when the black diaspora and the indigenous peoples of Canada express common cause through dance. It is, after all, the oldest storytelling form. Two Vancouver dancers, Kevin Fraser and Livona Ellis, indeed live on the unceded territories of the Musqueam Squamish Sleil-Waututh nations.
This is a work that often moves. “Nothing we give is without value,” we hear from a man’s voice, over video of Alexandra “Spicey” Landé dancing in her Montreal loft. Amen to that.
TESSEL premieres on Tuesday June 1, 2021 and is streaming free at: www.tessel.film. Links to the film can be found on the websites of the many co-presenters, including Citadel + Compagnie and dance immersion.
Photo of Esie Mensah by Mikka Gia