Shades: Exploring Shadeism through Dance

Shades: Exploring Shadeism through Dance

The Factory Theatre presented Shades from September 27–30

Isabel Armiento ARTS EDITOR

Photo: Dahlia Katz

Dance isn’t often paired with social commentary, but Shades explores racial issues with a raw clarity that transcends the usual mediums used in theatre. Esie Mensah created this poignant dance-based performance piece as a reflection of her personal experiences with shadeism, a universal phenomenon of discrimination between lighter and darker skinned members of a coloured community. A tactile, almost sensual, performance, Shades conveys a desperation for community and intimacy through the unusual medium of dance, using hardly more than sheer body language to examine powerful themes of prejudice and healing. A few choice words are deployed throughout the show to label the different shades of each coloured dancer — “clay,” “sand,” “coal,” “rust,” “tar,” “oak,” and “pearl” — and these titles prove to have huge impacts on interactions and power dynamics.

The Mike spoke to Mensah, director and choreographer of Shades, about her powerful work and the dialogues behind the performance. “Shades has always been timely,” Mensah asserts. “It’s been an issue that has been going on for quite some time, and people have been doing their best to shed light on it. I am just choosing to shed light on the subject through dance and theatre. People have been having this conversation in their own areas and I am providing a platform to have a large community conversation.”

The dancers have excellent technique, dazzling the audience with effortless triple pirouettes despite their bare feet. Mensah emphasizes the power of dance as a medium for exploring shadeism: “There is a deep seed that lies in the stomachs of many people of colour who have suffered or gained at the hands of shadeism,” she explains. “Dance adds an element to the conversation that hasn’t been explored. You see the true impact of the effects of people’s actions… I asked these artists to share and open themselves up to something horrible, and so much beauty came from that. We all healed something from this experience and that is transforming us into better people.”

Shades uses powerful imagery to showcase the insidious manifestations of shadeism. The visual of the “tar” dancer covering her body in flour and insisting her shade is “pearl” resounds with a painful historical context. The performance is mesmerizing, if hard to watch: she screams and writhes in her exclusion from the other dancers, her wrath juxtaposed against the pulsating mass of harmonious bodies next to her. When asked about the pervasiveness of Shades, Mensah explains that the performance’s story can speak to members of all communities: “I think everyone can learn something from this show — doesn’t matter [their] race. As a person of colour, you can gain perspective on things that you didn’t expect, and as a non-person of colour, you can gain knowledge that you didn’t have access to. This show is for everyone to learn, talk, heal, and grow.”

Shades is a panoply of juxtaposed images, as dancers oscillate between giggling and screaming, frenzied movement and tranquility, or spasms and swaying. “I want people to feel something from the rawness that is present on stage,” Mensah says, and the chaotic physical narrative delivers. “We are opening ourselves up as artists to this experience to have the audience feel something, whether it’s anger or remorse, sadness or love. As communities of colour, I feel we don’t talk enough and this piece will spark a needed conversation.”

This work is pertinent not only in communities of colour, but in the way we approach dialogues surrounding any sort of community. “By exposing shadeism you also shed light on racism, anti-black sentiment, colonialism, sexism, classism, patriarchy, and more,” Mensah says. “The spider web connected to shadeism is endless, as I learned everything feeds into one another.”