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Interview: Esie Mensah on the Risks, Rewards, and Necessity of TESSEL

How the Dora-nominated choreographer created a space for Black artists to tell their stories, and the necessity of the work in today's world.

Interview: Esie Mensah on the Risks, Rewards, and Necessity of TESSEL

It's been one year since Blackout Tuesday, a day where companies around the world committed to institutional change to support the Black community. Many Toronto organizations also announced they would work to bring change in the city's arts community. Among them were Fall For Dance North and Harbourfront Centre, who reached out to Esie Mensah about the potential for a new project from the Dora-nominated choreographer.

This new work is TESSEL, premiering on June 1, 2021-the first anniversary of Blackout Tuesday. The short film features pioneering Black artists, including Mensah, who are given a space to share their stories and lived experiences. It began as an idea inspired by her desire to amplify Black voices at a time where many people, including herself, were struggling, and since then has evolved into a work that highlights their resilience and artistry.

"I didn't want the film to just be about seeing these Black bodies move and that's it. I wanted it to be a space for it to be more, and to take this opportunity to almost push back on the industry that has opened their arms and said they're ready for change. I wanted to forge an opportunity for a conversation to understand how people are really feeling, so that we can make progress. That was kind of my spark as to why I brought people together. I knew I needed it, with everything that has been happening, and with everything that has happened last year carrying over into 2021 I was feeling like I needed a change. And I knew that if I was feeling that heaviness, other people were as well. I wanted to make space for them."

While some artists might have kept the work close to home due to ongoing lockdowns, Mensah wanted to ensure TESSEL involved a diverse group of artists from across the country. "It was a conversation-did we want to just get Black people that lived in different provinces, did we want to get Black dance makers, did we want to get people that were already working, people that were submerged into this conversation? We just started creating a list of names, and then also looking at the different styles because I didn't want it to feel too saturated in, say, contemporary, or West African, or street styles. I wanted it to feel like there's a diversity of art forms that these Black artists actually created."

After compiling a group of fourteen artists from around Canada, each bringing their personal and artistic voices to the project, Mensah was able to start building out what would become TESSEL. A major component to finding and telling its story required a group conversation between all artists involved. The conversation itself lasted more than seven hours over two days and involved the artists, Mensah, spiritual consultant Samson Bonkeabantu Brown, and artist facilitator Nicole Inica Hamilton. "It was really important to me that they had the conversation first and that it would hopefully inspire them to move in a way that they felt was authentic to them, and put them in a space to experience something that I think we all needed right now."

"I remember ending [the second day] with Samson and Nicole and myself just having a massive sigh of relief, and just kind of being flabbergasted on the honesty, the openness, the heart that everyone had invested in it. I think as a creator and as a choreographer you can only hope that people want to bring that into a room. Everyone felt safe to do that, and that for me...I am indebted to them, because it brought an honesty to the conversation."

After the work of navigating and guiding those conversations, Mensah then gave the artists a loose set of guidelines to follow when developing their pieces and left them to it. "I didn't want to stifle people. As choreographers, as dance makers, we don't often get a chance to dance for ourselves. I wanted people to feel like, this is a moment for you. Take it, and whatever way you feel like you need to move, explore that for yourself."

Mensah's open-ended approach was in some ways a risk, given that each artist was asked to select their own music, wardrobe, and setting-and aside from a few required shots, they could film however they wanted. "I did give prompts in terms of things that I needed from people, like a moment where you're just looking straight into the camera. Some people did it, and some people didn't because we're artists, and we kind of work in the moment. So it was an interesting challenge when I got into the editing room to really figure out how I wanted to piece things together."

"It was a huge gamble-I think at first I didn't realize how much of a gamble it was," she laughs, "but it definitely left a lasting impression. I threw the boomerang out so far that it definitely felt like I was losing sight of it at points. I did not make it easy on myself to try to find cohesiveness from the artists alone, and sifting through the conversations just to take things that people said, trying to find the commonality of it-it was a huge, huge gamble, but it's starting to come together really beautifully and I'm really looking forward to people seeing this."

While it might be hard to imagine how so many different voices and styles can cohesively fit into a short film with an approximate run time of just 15 minutes, Mensah explains that there's a clear point of connection throughout TESSEL. "It kind of confirmed something I've been thinking about for so long. A lot of people think dance is universal, but I think movement is what's universal, and that dance is different. It's the movement between all these styles that we can bring together, and it compliments the fusion work that I had been doing for so long within my own style of dance. That allowed me to see the commonality of movement between everybody, and that's the kind of thing that ties us all together."

While the movement and dance of TESSEL might be the way in which the story of the artists is told, Mensah also hopes that artists and audiences alike are able to leverage the work's filmed format to really engage with the piece. "It's frustrating, because I don't get a chance to continue to grow my work like we do with [live] theater where it's different every night and there's something new to discover. You can't do that with film. But it also brings up a lot of possibilities because you can find these really beautiful moments, and those moments can bring so much possibility in terms of movement, in terms of breath, in terms of capturing them. I'm really leaning into the change."

Creating TESSEL as a short film hasn't just given Mensah the opportunity to explore new ways of presenting dance and movement-it's also giving her audiences the opportunity to engage with the work more than once. Not only that, but having the work filmed also gives more people the opportunity to view and engage with it-something that's always been an important part of Mensah's creative process. "One thing that has always remained consistent with my work is that I want people to feel something. I want people to feel changed in some way, shape or form from the work. Inspiring people to continue the conversation, to me, is something that is so important. I try to take care of my audience, try to give them an experience with my art, and I hope that's something that stays consistent as I continue to grow as a creator; that there is something that people feel from my art that allows them to think about things differently, you know-life, love, their family, the world, everything-because I think we need it, right now especially. Which is why I think [TESSEL] feels so necessary, because it's something that we're still staring at. We can't get away from it."

And while the status of live performance in Canada doesn't seem to be changing quickly, Mensah's own experiences have her hoping that other artists can also leverage their voices to tell relevant stories-not only for their own healing or for audiences now, but for future generations as well.

"Let [what's happening now] be the inspiration that can spark new ideas; I don't know if I necessarily would've had this idea if things hadn't gone the way that they have, or if I hadn't created my other film (A Revolution of Love). Answering the call of what's going on right now has been a huge inspiration for me to want to bring people in, and want to get people to just reflect on what's happening now...I think it's also great to just encourage artists to create work that allows us to think and reflect on the things that are going on now, and on what it is that we're feeling-because we are feeling a lot, you know. The lockdown, and the racial pandemic, the war that's going on overseas...there's so much happening that I think we can really lean into art to help tell the story of what's going on."


Fall For Dance North and Harbourfront Centre's TESSEL premieres June 1, 2021. For more information or to stream free in Canada, visit www.tessel.film

Photo Credit: Mikka Gia



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