A recent conversation with Dora nominated choreographer and dance artist Esie Mensah certainly opened my eyes to what is occurring in the world of the professional performing artist especially in moving forward to ensure inclusion, equity, and diversity of and for all members.
June 1 will mark two important dates – the first is the premiere of the upcoming short film ‘Tessel’, commissioned by Fall for Dance North and Harbourfront Centre. National in scope, this short film features 14 Black dancemakers from across Canada in a crucial conversation on what it means to be an artist in this unprecedented historical time.
The second marked importance for June 1 is the one-year anniversary of ‘Blackout Tuesday’ where organizations around the globe publicly committed to institutional change to help the Black community.
‘Tessel’ was conceptualized and directed by Esie Mensah, so I felt it was important to highlight the prolific work of what she has captured.
I was quickly introduced to her work through a CBC Arts Segment on her work as a choreographer and dancer, but it was her TED Talk “My Skin was too dark for my profession, so I changed the story” which caught my attention: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dgGQv4efnI8
To begin our conversation, Esie let me know her immediate family has been doing well and in her words: “So far, so good.” They haven’t been hit too hard, but she is sadly and consciously aware how this medical epidemic has affected each of us in some way. Her family are healthy and when it has been allowed, they have been able to see each other on different occasions when they could. At one point during our conversation, Esie re-iterated what many of us are hoping – we “keep looking to the horizon where it feels safe for everybody, but we’ll see how things go the next few months…even years.”
Such true words spoken.
Just like many artists to whom I’ve spoken throughout this pandemic series, Esie’s professional world also came to a halt as many of her upcoming projects or solo works were either cancelled or postponed to who knows when. And like many of the artists, Esie felt it was a really good question in asking her what she has missed the most about performance during the lock down. She paused for a few moments before she responded. To dance is her first love, and what does she miss the most:
“There’s a feeling that you get when you’re on stage live…because I’ve been choreographing so much, I wasn’t always performing and dancing, but there’s that synergy, that energy you get when you’re either creating in a room with people or you’re on-stage dancing with people and the audience is receiving you. The faces to me are such an invigorating and affirming experience as a dancer.“
I was grateful how Esie felt comfortable in speaking about the TED Talk and how her skin was ‘too dark’ for her profession, so she changed the narrative to keep moving forward. She spoke candidly about some of the limitations she encountered early in her career:
“I attended George Brown College for the Commercial Dance Programme. That first year I came out of school, I felt the doors opened up and I experienced what I thought the potential of my career could have been. After that first year and over the next two and three years, I realized the reality of the business that I was in as a dark-skinned black woman. What I noticed through the work (since I’ve been in this for so long) was that people place a commodity over dark skin and for whatever reason, they don’t think it’s the same value as somebody with lighter skin.”
I’m going to be honest and say that I was rather surprised by Esie’s revelation and I listened intently as she continued:
“I had people bluntly tell me that, yes, they think you’re too dark for this music video, and that video was for black artists…when I was applying for a four-month contract in China, same thing, well they really, really love you, but they just think you’re too dark for television…this was the first time I had to contextualize and swallow someone telling me, very candidly, that you’re too dark so we can’t take you. It’s almost as if you could change that one thing the doors would open.”
Conversations like this were something Esie said she was used to swallowing, but it wasn’t until giving her TED Talk that this was an issue and real problem.
Clearly, this shook the foundation she was on, and it became the catalyst she was on that pushed her to be so good, so amazing, so undeniable that her shade was never be an issue so that people can’t say they want to hire her despite her shade. In other words, I want to hire her because it’s her and that her shade is never an issue.
This issue has been a roller coast for Esie as “this issue made me feel very, very small, marginalized or pigeon-holed because of it which, now her skin colour is my superpower.”
And as we continued our conversation, I saw how she is a determined and strong woman who took agency in her own hands to carve out her path as a professional artist regarding these limitations of skin colour. What she has done specifically is “to become my own boss, essentially.”
I wanted to quote Esie directly for the rest of the questions I asked her because it’s important to read her voice in her own words:
How else specifically have you taken charge of your professional artistic journey and path:
Becoming my own boss started when I was in the commercial dance scene because I recognize throughout those two to three years where I was waiting for somebody to call me and waiting for somebody to say that I was good enough or if somebody cancelled then I got in for the certain jobs that were coming out, and I was like that I can’t be sitting here waiting for the next job. I want to be in charge of my own life.
That was the shift of me in becoming more of a choreographer.
As the industry shifted and I shifted, I began more intrigued to tell my own stories and say the things I had experienced, the questions I wanted to have answered or that I wanted to explore through art making, through dance, through theatre. When I was in school at George Brown, I did some acting, but for the amount I’m doing now has just been absorbed through working in theatre.
I was really intrigued by it. My first production was a dance play I was writing. That was my first experience in creating my own stories, real true experiences doing work at Harbourfront Centre.
Friends of mine were saying I should take this experience and start applying for grants and building my own shows. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do.
My first impulse was to start writing, and I did and started creating stories to ask questions about as a first-generation Ghanaian child, my parents come to Canada, but nobody ever desires to go back. To me, we can’t really be surprised by the fact that our home countries are not progressing because all of the knowledge is now in the diaspora.
That was the first set of conversations and that transformed into ‘Shades’, the next thing that happened because of a movie film I had done – I had done the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ remake that had come into Toronto a number of years ago. A friend of mine and I both got the film roles at the audition and we were questioning how many black girls were going to be on the project. There were four of us they seemed to like, and we didn’t think we would get it, and we did.
I remember talking to the assistant choreographer. He overhead us at the audition. He quizzed and asked why we would say this, and we told him something like this never happens, having four black girls on a project that are medium to dark toned, never happens. He was shocked and he’s been working in the business for decades.
This is a huge conversation about ‘shadeism’, and I know I can’t change everyone’s mind on it but If I can get people to question it, and the ‘why’ behind it, that I think is really important.
I am looking forward to seeing ‘Tessel’ Tell me about this short film and why it is so important for you as a person, as an individual and as a professional artist.
This short film project was a springboard to everything that has been going on over the past year and beyond.
I hit a point last year and recognized as an artist and creator that the space for conversation may not always be there for everybody. When Ilter Ibrahimof from Fall for Dance North called me, he wanted to do something to amplify Black voices.
I said, “Great!” Well, if we’re going to do that, I need to bring people together in conversation, and that’s it not just centered in asking people to film themselves and splice something together. I wanted there to be depth and truth. I work as an Artistic advisor, so I’m working in the equity, diversity and inclusion stream that has been popping up over the last year for everybody especially within arts organizations.
When I recognized being entrenched in that conversation is that we all have questions, and some people are scared to ask those questions. Some people are scared to step forward with an ignorance to say I don’t know; I didn’t know about your experience; I didn’t know what it was like what you went through.
The majority of the artists in the film didn’t know each other which was wonderful, so everybody is meeting new people. The whole group hasn’t met officially yet because some artists came on two different days. Over those two days, we ended up with a seven-hour conversation, and it was so humbling. People needed the space to talk, to chat and knowing people are feeling the same thing I’m feeling and understood my experience.
What does it mean now to amplify Black voices? It can mean different things to different people. For me, within my community and my close circle, conversation was the thing that pulled me through last year. I started a group chat with some friends, and it gave us space to have honest, candid conversation.
If we’re going to take steps to change, we really need to be more attuned to those conversations and open to hearing the truth of those conversations. For me, giving Black artists a chance to speak and getting our artists to really listen was so important.
Now these were the words of only 14 dancers and people We’re not speaking for all the Black community across Canada. We are saying there is a commonality of everyone’s experiences of pain, a heaviness but there’s also a lot of joy and being able to find freedom through movement.
Having this conversation and being pushed forward through dance shifts it for people. Talking about racism is never easy but to hear from people and see their bodies move or stillness in looking at the camera, that solicits a response from the audience altogether. We’re starting to see the person behind the skin, behind the artist. We’re seeing the reality and I hope this leaves a lasting impression with the film.
How do you see ‘Tessel’ continue to challenge the global discourse on race?
With a lot of my work, there’s been that consistency of sparking a conversation. I really want there to be a conversation and want people to feel inspired to come together and discuss.
This is the first time we’ve had Canadian dance presenters on one project. This has never happened before, and so I hope everybody continues to understand the urgency and that it takes continual work consistently to open up new doors and allow other people to fill in the gaps that are present.
I hope there’s some real honesty and perk up from people. I hope can receive that honesty. Talking is important, but also the listening is far more important.
As we slowly emerge from this pandemic and look toward the future, what is it about your work that you would like future audiences to remember about you?
Hmmmm… I would hope that future audiences can feel changed from my work, and that it’s an experience. It’s not merely coming in to watch a show or film, it’s an experience they can take with them and it sparks change, a way to care, to love people more, to be more empathetic.
I hope my work inspires growth and that the seeds I plant within my work that I hope it continues to flourish in people’s lives.
I hope that stays consistent with my work.
‘Tessel’ premieres June 1. Please go to www.harbourfrontcentre.com to learn more how to access the film online.