Yensa Festival Celebrates Black Dancers in Toronto

Lua Shayenne, better known to Toronto audiences as a dancer and choreographer, is evolving in an ambitious way. Shayenne takes on the role of producer/curator to launch a festival that celebrates black women dancers. Shayenne named it Yensa, taking inspiration from a word that means “let’s dance” from her mother, the West African Fanti heritage of singer Ranzie Mensah. Scheduled as a biennial event, Yensa’s inaugural festival is as much about building community and opening important channels of discussion as it is about being a showcase of performances.

The festival unfolds with a series of dance workshops open to all, features a public lecture on August 19 by Nigerian-born, UK-based performer, playwright and scholar Funmi Adewole Elliott, and culminates in two evenings of performances on August 26 and 27 at Daniels Spectrum in Regent Park followed by a closing day on August 28 “Atsia Circle” of drumming, dancing and singing inspired by the traditions of the Ewe people of Ghana.

This was a previous African dance and drumming event in June 2018 called “Wassa! Wassa! ‘, produced by the Lua Shayenne Dance Company at Crow’s Theatre, which turned out to be the seed of Yensa.

“I already had in mind that I wanted to organize a festival,” says Shayenne, “but it was over several years of informal discussions with leading black dance practitioners that it became clear to me that ‘there was an urgent need to provide a platform to showcase the diversity of forms and expressions within our community; that it should be for black women, by black women, but celebrated by everyone .

Esie Mensah, who will lead a workshop on August 13 called “Movement and Intention” and will also perform her solo “A Seat at the Table” as part of the August 27 showcase, applauds Shayenne’s initiative.

“Lua has always been a visionary,” says Mensah. “There hasn’t been anything like it that’s focused on women. We’ve all worked in silos, just trying to be successful. It’s a chance to slow down and have a conversation, to turn problems into action.

For Shayenne, Yensa aims to empower black dancers and fight against misogynoira word coined in 2010 by African-American scholar and activist Moya Bailey to sum up a toxic mix of anti-black racism and sexism.

“The goal is really to start by nurturing a circle of learning,” says Shayenne. “What does healing mean? What does reconciliation look like? What is liberation from oppressive forces? These are big words, but how do we do it in action? And how do we do that through art?

This is in part about shattering stereotypes and revealing the rich variety of dance expressions practiced by black women around the world, ranging from choreography rooted in African traditions to contemporary jazz, house and hip hop.

Shayenne says, “We don’t want to be put in a box. The very idea of ​​the festival is to highlight the diversity of artistic practices of black women and to show that we come from different histories, from different life experiences, which are reflected in our work.

Shayenne is also keen to change the popular perception, at least among non-black audiences, that “traditional” is just another way to describe folk dancing.

“When we say ‘traditional’ we mean that it is based on a strong cultural background and history, but traditional African dance is in fact contemporary. It’s rooted in improvisation. It’s constantly evolving.”

The famous African proverb recalls that “it takes a whole village to raise a child”. You could say something similar about Yensa. Although in a sense the festival is Shayenne’s baby, she can’t wait to thank all the support and guidance she received in bringing her initial idea to fruition from people like Vivine Scarlett of dance Immersion and Naomi Campbell. by Luminato. Shayenne is especially grateful to Ilter Ibrahimof, Artistic Director of Toronto’s Fall For Dance North, who, in addition to enabling Funmi Adewole Elliott’s lecture to be broadcast live, supported Shayenne every step of the way.

“Ilter was just exceptional. ‘Call me when you want; whatever you need, he said. Ilter has really become my mentor, the festival gives me the opportunity to evolve in the role of curator and to be supervised by all these incredible and experienced people.

Shayenne has no plans to give up dancing, but she is already thinking about how Yensa might evolve.

“The intention is for the festival to grow. Although it is run by my company, we want it to be a community enterprise that will take different iterations and over time include other curators. But black women will remain a constant and the main focus.

Yensa Festival, August 13-28;


Michael Crabb is a freelance writer who covers dance and opera for The Star.


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