Lua Shayenne, known best to Toronto audiences as a dancer and choreographer, is moving out in big and ambitious ways. Shayenne is donning the hat of producer/curator to launch a festival that celebrates Black women dance artists. Shayenne has named it Yensa, drawing on a word that means “let’s dance” from her mother, singer Ranzie Mensah’s West African Fanti heritage. Planned as a biennial event, the inaugural Yensa Festival is as much about building a community and opening important channels of discussion as it is a performance showcase.
The festival unfolds with a series of open-to-all dance workshops, features an August 19 public talk by Nigerian-born, UK-based performer, dramaturge and academic Funmi Adewole Elliott and culminates in two evenings of performances Aug. 26 and 27 at Daniels Spectrum in Regent Park followed by an August 28 closing day “Atsia Circle” of drumming, dance and song inspired by the traditions of the Ewe people of Ghana.
It was an earlier African dance and drumming event in June 2018 called “Wassa! Wassa!”, produced by the Lua Shayenne Dance Company at Crow’s Theatre, that turned out to be the seed for Yensa.
“I already had in mind that I wanted to do a festival,” says Shayenne, “but it was over several years of informal discussions with leading Black female dance practitioners that it became clear to me there was a dire need to provide a platform to highlight the diversity of forms and expressions within our community; that it had to be for Black women, by Black women, but celebrated by everybody.”
Esie Mensah, who will lead an August 13 workshop titled “Movement and Intention” and also perform her solo “A Seat at the Table” as part of the Aug. 27 showcase, applauds Shayenne’s initiative.
“Lua has always been a visionary,” says Mensah. “There hasn’t been anything like this that’s female-oriented. We’ve all been working in silos, just trying to make it. This is a chance to slow down and have a conversation, to turn issues into action.”
For Shayenne, Yensa is intended to empower Black women dance artists and to push back against misogynoir, a word coined in 2010 by African-American scholar and activist Moya Bailey to encapsulate a toxic blend of anti-Black racism and sexism.
“The focus is really to start by nurturing a learning circle,” Shayenne explains. “What does healing mean? What does reconciliation look like? What is liberation from oppressive forces? These are big words, but how do we do that in action? And how do we do that through art?”
Part of it involves exploding stereotypes and revealing the rich variety of dance expressions practised by Black women globally, everything from choreography rooted in African traditions to contemporary jazz, house and hip hop.
Says Shayenne: “We do not want to be put in a box. The whole idea of the festival is to showcase the diversity of black women’s artistic practices, and to show that we come from different stories, different life experiences, all of which is reflected in our work.”
Shayenne is also eager to shift the popular perception, at least among non-Black audiences, of “traditional” being just another way of describing folk dance.
“When we say ‘traditional’ we mean that it’s based on a strong cultural background and in history, but traditional African dance is in fact contemporary. It’s rooted in improvisation. It’s constantly evolving,”
The famous African proverb points out that “it takes a village to raise a child.” You could say something similar about Yensa. Although in one sense the festival is Shayenne’s baby, she is eager to acknowledge all the support and advice she has received in bringing her initial idea to fruition from people such as dance Immersion’s Vivine Scarlett and Luminato’s Naomi Campbell. Shayenne is particularly grateful to Ilter Ibrahimof, artistic director of Toronto’s Fall For Dance North, who apart from making it possible to livestream Funmi Adewole Elliott’s talk has had Shayenne’s back every step of the way.
“Ilter has been just exceptional. ‘Call me anytime; anything that you need,’ he said. Ilter truly became my mentor, The festival gives me an opportunity to grow into the role of curator and be mentored by all of these amazing, experienced folks.”
Shayenne is not planning to give up dancing but she’s already thinking about how Yensa may evolve.
“The intention is for the festival to grow. Although it’s spearheaded by my company, we want it to be very much a community endeavour that will take on different iterations and over time include other curators. But Black women will remain a constant and the primary focus.”
Yensa Festival, Aug. 13-28; yensafestival.com
JOIN THE CONVERSATION