As a choreographer, help us understand how you process ideas.
To be honest, I’m still trying to figure that out for myself. I go through a lot of uncertainty and insecurity to arrive hopefully at a place of knowing. The art of creating and trusting your imagination to dream up a reality you will soon perform on stage is at times overwhelming. I tend to focus too much on the result and not enough on the process. I put my faith in places that allow me to move, flow and to do my best but ultimately it’s always a rollercoaster ride.
My process involves a lot of writing and journaling ideas to see which ones survive. Troubleshooting allows me to determine how to approach things moving forward. Sometimes it works, other times ideas fall flat during rehearsals. I’ve learned to be agile and quick on your feet when faced with obstacles that arise during creation. I’ve also learned the hard way to always include room in your budget that allows for these organic changes.
I go with the flow and not against it because it’s all part of the process… My recent life lessons have taught me that even in the hardest of situations, it’s always important to stay focused on the daily journey and not solely on the end result…in my opinion that is where true gratitude lies.
Can you speak more about this love affair between the end result and the creative process.
This is something that wavers for me from time to time. Both have been pivotal to my development but the process reminds me of what’s important. It’s allowed me to stop and smell the roses or the dance studios. I was driven by the end result because that’s what I put on my resume. My end results were my bragging rights. Subconsciously I was driven to experience a personal moment with the celebrities I’ve worked with, a glimpse, a groove or even just a smile. But as a dancer, all you can take away are these moments because the feelings you experience aren’t always tangible. You need to enjoy every last ounce of what’s in front of you hence why the process should be the most gratifying experience.
How do you decide what ideas are presented and in what format; for example a small piece within a showcase vs. your own production.
My ideas are rooted in inspiration and the choice to bring it to a stage is fuelled by somewhat of a burning desire. That feeling is my intuition telling me to create something. I do get those feelings often but don’t always choose to act on it. Some ideas start out small but then develop into something larger; others are more extravagant and need a lot of time to become a reality. My biggest obstacle is not getting in the way of my vision. They come to me for a reason and I want to do my best to honor that. I remember being in rehearsal with Kenny Ortega for the movie Rocky Horror Picture Show…he pulled the dancers aside and told us a story about Michael Jackson during the rehearsals of the This is it tour. The production company built a recording studio so Michael could create when he felt inspired, however, he wasn’t getting enough rest and when Kenny asked him why… he replied “if I don’t act on my inspirations God’s going to give them to Prince” This was a good lesson to hold onto.
Your latest production Shades tackles the issue of discrimination by communities of color against each other and the lengths some have chosen to avoid a perceived lower social status. Tell us about the show and what you hope to achieve with this project.
Shades was first showcased in September 2016. It began as a sum of ideas surrounding the subject of shadeism that reflected both my personal and societal experiences. Whether we know it or not, shadeism is very prevalent throughout our world. We see it in the media without realizing how much it clouds our vision. From this original presentation, I connected with Director Alexis Wood who proposed the idea of developing a documentary about the show. Over the course of the next 10 months, we interviewed friends and family about their experiences and those stories affected how the piece would develop. That information laid dormant in my mind and was ignited when I reconnected with my dancers the following summer.
A lot of creativity poured out of me and I finished that week with 25 minutes of new material. As I got into rehearsals for the next installment presented by Anadam Dance Theatre’s Contemporaneity festival and Dance Immersion’s “Movement in time”, I was looking forward to reviving what we created in the summer. Instead, I was met with a serious case of artist block. I wanted to ensure the story was cohesive but I ended up setting myself back. I do my best to take my ego out of the equation and was stuck in a position that made me question every idea that was coming out of my head…silently. By the time my words made it public it was too late and all of my fears about the success of the show were contributing factors to me falling ill and ending up in the hospital. Exactly one week before the public presentation I pulled the plug on the show to take care of my health. It was a very hard decision but I truly acknowledged God’s timing and understood that my health challenge coming right before the presentation was no mistake. God was giving me more time to re-evaluate, refresh and renew. These past 5 months have been an incubation period to help flush out my ideas and develop new ones. I’m happy to say that we recently presented the show during the Rhubarb Festival and in partnership with the ROM for the TDSB. A full production funded by Canada Council for the Arts as well as Toronto Arts Council will hit the stage in the fall of 2018. This vision of the show has expanded past my expectations and I want to bring this production, documentary, and conversation to people around the world. I understand how much the subject of shadeism affects people of color especially women. It’s important that we continued this conversation to help the next generation to make healthy informed decisions.
When you reflect on the recent challenges you experienced, how has this changed you a person, dancer, and artist.
I resented the idea of change subconsciously and became comfortable with being comfortable… but my illness brought me clarity. I’m learning to be flexible with the view I have of myself and not take life too seriously. I’m constantly listening to the Super Soul Sunday or What it Takes podcasts to understand how other people I’ve admired overcame life’s challenges. Everyone has a story and it’s important to honor your own because everything truly does happen for a reason.
Tell us about the power of vulnerability and the mind-body connection.
My journey began after listening to a small whisper that was pushing me to pursue dance. I started my career at 22 so I felt like I had to something to prove. I had to show everyone that I was talented and I could make it despite my late start. As a result, I built a great resume but was moving further and further away from what I truly needed. I forgot who I was and what put me on this path in the first place.
My work ethic was in overdrive, which caused my physical body to stop dead in its tracks. I developed a condition called ulcerative colitis…a digestive disorder that begins in the gut and causes the colon to have ulcers. It’s triggered by stress, food and an inability to emotionally let things go. I was diagnosed 2 years ago but failed to do enough to treat it and as a result, my condition worsened putting me in the hospital for 2 weeks. The question of vulnerability was present because I had to disclose to people that I wasn’t well and had to cancel an extensive amount of work. I was forced to let go of everything and just be with myself reflecting on how I got to this point and what needed to change. I’m listening to myself truly for the first time in a long time; it has become my new foundation and it opened up a new understanding of life. I align myself with the divine messages spoken by my mentors, family, friends and complete strangers. I value my mind, body and soul, a beautiful trifecta of divinity here to do the work of God and my Ancestors. I am fortunate. I am listening and I am thankful.
Reflecting on your time in the industry is there anything you would have done differently and what advice do you give your students.
I would tell my students the same thing I would tell my younger self… Everything works out the way it’s supposed to so don’t stress, it’s not healthy and it ages you. I spent so much time and energy worrying about the future and whether I was making the right decisions that I ended up stopping myself from doing anything. I needed to give myself permission to practice messing up and getting back on my feet. Be resilient! Every decision isn’t life threatening as there is nothing to fear (Kevin Allwood taught me this) although I’m still in the process of fully learning this lesson. Find something that makes you smile all throughout your day. It’s imperative to recalibrate and redefine your “why” so you can maintain a strong foundation and finally, remember not to take life so seriously.
What do you hope your dancers take from working with you.
If I gravitate to a dancer its because I believe there is something special in them and working with me will lend well to their development. I’ve learned a lot throughout my career, it’s molded me into the woman I am today and it’s made my voice stronger. I know that I have something to give my students and I’m thankful for that… It makes me happy that I can add value to someone’s development.
Africa has had a profound impact on your life. Tell us how the continent helped shape your voice as a content creator.
My Ghanaian and African identity is me! It’s the very fabric of my being and it provides a beautiful foundation of ancestry, roots, and heritage within multiple aspects of my life. I’ve aligned myself so when people think of me and they see Africa. We are officially a package deal…no parts sold separately! I’m thankful to have chosen the parents I did, they’ve guided me to become the person I am today. They helped me listen to my calling and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them for that I am thankful. Ase and Akpe.
Who is Esie Mensah.
A spirit that is expanding and evolving, a being that uses art to make positive changes in the world. I am an artist who has accepted the challenge to be my best self while encouraging others to do the same.
The previous image I had of myself was a woman living in fear. For those who know me or have watched my career, this might be hard to believe. That fear didn’t stop me from accomplishing my goals but I was so scared of the fullness of my light that it truly felt like my feet were shackled to the floor. I was running towards success but sabotaging myself at the same time. The famous quote from Marianne Williamson says that “It is our Light, not our Darkness that most frightens us” I knew where I wanted to be but my spirit was so cloudy with unwanted baggage. I was scared of what I would leave behind if I let my spirit rise but the story you tell yourself can cost you your future. Lucky for me I have a lot of love and divine guidance in my life that made sure I would come out on the other side of fear wiser and stronger. it took an extensive amount of letting go and even more self-love to become who I am now. I’m thankful for my darkness because it allowed me to own my light… a full array of light reflecting the sun in all its beauty and greatness.