On Dec. 14, 2020, Toronto History Museums released A Revolution of Love, created by Esie Mensah. The dancefilm is part of a larger project, Awakenings, an online series of art projects created by Black and Indigenous artists and artists of colour. Mensah’s film tells the story of a young Black woman considering her ancestral history and the current violence wrought upon her community. Filmed at Toronto’s Fort York in partnership with Soulpepper Theatre, A Revolution of Love tells the story of a young Black woman considering her ancestral history and the current violence wrought upon her community. Fifteen women join Mensah in using dance to envision a future in which love is the driving force of revolution. The film has more than 7,500 views on YouTube.
Mensah, a dancer and choreographer in Toronto, was asked to create the film by Umbereen Inayet, the City of Toronto programming supervisor, and assembled a large team including Weyni Mengesha (the artistic director of Soulpepper Theatre) and Lucius Dechausay (director of CBC’s The Move) as co-directors. The film features the words of Assata Shakur and the music of d’bi.young anitafrika.
Below are excerpts of a longer conversation with Mensah, facilitated by Joy Henderson. In Part I, they speak about including a spiritual advisor in the filmmaking process, how not to colonize a space and how life can unknowingly seep into art. In Part II (below), they talk about how colonialism has disconnected dance and spirituality.
Joy Henderson: So we’re kind of talking about dancing as healing and medicine and spirituality. I’m Afro-Indigenous, and I don’t dance very well. [laughs] But when I do it, I’m doing it because I’m feeling good, because I feel tapped into my family and my roots, and what have you, right? Do you feel like colonialism has disconnected dance and spirituality?
Esie Mensah: You don’t have to do it well! There’s not a technique barometer that’s like, ‘Oh! No! You didn’t do that step!’ There’s an energy, there’s a call, and then the people that are able to get and access that technique, as well as form that sphere [of spirituality], those are the ones that you can go to the village, you can find in certain spaces, in certain circles. You can be like, ‘Yes, that person, that person is a dancer, and that’s what they were born to do.’ But everybody has the gift. Speaking about the necessity of people, or reminding people about what that first encounter with dance is, now we have a commercialized version of it. Colonialism has definitely reframed and still reframes it.
It’s interesting doing this work, and I’ve had to look at, like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is what happened to hip hop.’ To me, it was an ancestral birth of energy. So it first started with the music and the voice of these individuals. And then all of a sudden, this whole new movement started to form. And then all of a sudden, we’re getting breaking, and we’re getting hip-hop movements, and then a whole new genre takes over. The seat of it started in one place, but where hip hop is now has completely been colonized.
EM: It’s taken into spaces and places that have no idea. But the root is the same thing with jazz. Same thing with tap. How many people know what tap was and where it started? So many of these movements started as a source of freedom. It was a source of freeing up ourselves.
Look at Carnival. You’re looking at Caribana. You’re looking at that expression of going down the road as a procession. It was like years ago that a friend of mine was like, ‘Yeah, the procession that you have in Carnival is like a funeral procession that you would have in traditional settings.’ And for me, I was just like, ‘Whoa! Whoa!’ At that time, I hadn’t even put the two thoughts together. Because, again, I grew up in that culture. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen what happens when at a funeral party: the head family comes and greets, or how people have to come in and greet them. All of that was art and was seen as the dance. So to see how things like that, the things that we remember, the way that the ancestors in our ancestral energy is able to move through us to remind people of something — of something that we once were, and how that something then transforms into an expression and then transforms into a culture and then how that culture gets appropriated.
JH: Yes. As it happens to many stories.
EM: Yeah, you see it, and it’s interesting to see that they’re sacred parts of our cultures that are constantly getting appropriated, you know? And why? Well, clearly, you’ve seen that energy that people possess, and you think that by taking it, you can try to replicate it, which you can’t. Because, to me, it’s like there’s a different energy that comes forward. And I think that’s why so many people gravitate to my work at this point: there’s a different energy that comes forward when you ask people to bring themselves and to bring their full selves into a room, into a space. You’re not just there as a dancer. I’ve been through it: ‘Show up as a body. I don’t even care what your name is; this is what your number is. You’re going to do this; you’re going to execute it. Oh, you can’t execute it? OK, can you please float to the back? Excuse me, lady? Yep. Can you come up front?’ It’s a cutthroat industry. And it’s not one centred in care.
JH: Yeah. I was listening to some blues today. It was just a playlist on Spotify. I didn’t know who was who; I didn’t recognize the voices. But you could tell who was the blues singer from the 1930s Black American versus, like, the 1990s white woman singing. And it wasn’t, like, to throw shade on them. But you couldn’t feel it. There wasn’t that grind in your stomach.
EM: It’s an interesting point that you’re making. Because one of my things is that the people that happened to not be in a POC shell but have that spirit … You know, one of my teachers, she’s an Italian woman, and everything about her spirit is Brazil. So she has a Brazilian dance company. And, you know, you have to understand why you chose this particular shell in this lifetime, I believe. What was that supposed to teach you? Because your spirit has a history. And that history goes beyond this skin complexion that you happen to be in now. So you have to be able to understand, what are those things that I’m supposed to understand of myself? Were you the person that was out here burning down buildings in a couple lifetimes ago saying, I don’t like anybody that looks like you, and then a couple lifetimes later, you are that person? You have to understand what that shell is supposed to teach you. And so I think that that spiritual energy knows no boundaries. But sometimes it ends up in a person that we’re not used to seeing, but you could always know when it’s spirit. You can’t fake that funk. [laughs]
JH: I love it.
EM: You can try, but you can’t fake it. It’s not going to work.
These are excerpts of a longer conversation and have been edited for clarity.