On June 1, Fall for Dance North and Harbourfront Centre will present the world premiere of TESSEL. Esie Mensah’s short film showcases the eclectic styles of fourteen Black dance artists from across Canada and invites us to hear their lived experiences. Streaming for free, this presentation is a celebration of Black artistry, a call to action to amplify Black voices and a commemoration of a defining moment near the beginning of 2020.
Blackout Tuesday (June 2, 2020) was a collective protest against racism and police brutality following the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. The relatively minimal disruption of social media feeds and commercial operations was largely interpreted as performative allyship on behalf of artists and businesses. Many expressed support of the Black community, announcing their commitment to address systemic racism within their organizations; we are now beginning to see if and where that ambition has been actualized.
The film, directed by Mensah, features herself (Afrofusion) and this diverse collection of dancers: Alexandra “Spicey” Landé (Street Dance), Eugene “GeNie” Baffoe (Hip Hop), Gabrielle Martin (Contemporary, Aerial Circus/Acrobatics), Kevin Fraser (Contemporary, Experimental, Interdisciplinary Arts), Liliona Quarmyne (African, Contemporary), Lisa La Touche (Tap), Livona Ellis (Ballet), Lua Shayenne (West African, Contemporary), Natasha Powell (Jazz), Raoul “Jiggy Man” Pillay (Jazz, House, Hip Hop), Rayvn Wngz (Burlesque, Waacking, Vogue, Contemporary), Ronald A. Taylor (Contemporary, Afro-Caribbean) and Yvon “Crazy Smooth” Soglo (Streetdance).
The project began as a seven-hour conversation amongst the creators. That discussion—detailing the individual experiences that have influenced their relationship to the art form—provides narration to the film’s collage of varied and distinctive dance styles. Institutional blocks, inherited trauma and the importance of self-care are some of the key ideas that resonate.
A variety of environments—forest, lakeshore, studio, traditional theatre, a home—creates a sense of expanded, shared space. Mensah, her editor (Sonya Mwambu) and sound designer (Meg Roe), have incorporated the titular process of tessellation into the film’s style with superimposed images and overlapping voices. The effect is purposeful and cohesive, but somewhat stilted.
Overall, the intentionality of the piece is palpable, but it feels more utilitarian than emotionally compelling. Though several anecdotes allude to the rage and frustration experienced by the creators, the film never quite captures those raw emotions. It is peaceful, effectively demonstrating the healing properties of dance, but it is too calm and contemplative to convey the fierce urgency that clearly inspired it.
Rather than a stand-alone piece, TESSEL feels more like an extended trailer for the work of these fourteen artists and a brief, intriguing glimpse into what must have been an intense, fortifying initial discussion.