Black Canadian dance artists share experiences of racism in new film conceived by Esie Mensah

The Toronto choreographer and dancer calls the project "TESSEL", which is intended to make viewers think about enduring patterns of discrimination in our society

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      Last year’s police murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd prompted tremendous soul-searching within the Canadian arts community.

      But even as expressions of good intentions were being widely articulated, Toronto dancer and choreographer Esie Mensah felt that more needed to be done to shine a light on racism within her art form.

      “A friend of mine had said to me, ‘It feels like people are finding out that racism existed for the very first time,’ ” Mensah told the Straight by phone from Toronto. “You know, we would joke and we would kid about it, but we knew that there was still a lot of truth in that.”

      So last January, Mensah decided to bring together 14 Black dancemakers from across Canada, including herself, for seven hours of frank conversation on race.

      The result is a short film, “TESSEL”, which documents the experiences of Black dance artists through judicious editing of voice and movement.

      The virtual premiere will be presented for free across Canada on June 1, a year after Blackout Tuesday. That’s when screens went dark and businesses ceased activities for eight minutes and 46 seconds last June in memory of Floyd.

      “This has never happened in Canadian dance history—that so many presenters have come on board for a project like this,” Mensah said.

      She emphasized the importance of people recognizing that the seeds of this project came from trauma. And she noted that the audience will not know which dancer is speaking at any given time in the film, offering each artist full freedom to express themselves.

      “Everyone says something that’s needed,” she stated. “Everybody says something of value.”

      Video: A live chat with the cast of Shades, which was presented by Esie Mensah Creations and Turn Out Radio.

      Participants include Vancouver dance artists Livona Ellis, Kevin Fraser, and Gabrielle Martin. The music was overseen by Vancouverites Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe, who was also in charge of sound design.

      “There’s a lot of truth and honesty, but also I think [there’s] an idea of a way forward in terms of healing,” Mensah said.

      For those wondering about the title, tesselations are flat geometric patterns on tiles that include more than one shape and have no gaps. By calling the film “TESSEL”, Mensah hopes to help people understand the enduring pattern of racism and recognize how to interrupt it by creating a new foundation.

      “I did not want to give a film at the space where everybody else would be comfortable,” she said. “I needed to have the conversation in the space where we were at as artists. And for people to meet us where we are—and not necessarily us meeting other individuals where they are at.”

      Fall for Dance North and Harbourfront Centre produced “TESSEL”, which is copresented by the Vancouver International Dance Festival. It premieres for free on Tuesday (June 1) at