Sunday, March 26, 2023

When Dance Meets Social Justice Expect The “Uncomfortable”

Hip hop music has long been associated with social justice. From Grandmaster Flash to Kendrick Lamar, the genre has been used to provide social commentary on issues of systemic and anti-Black racism.

So when Josh Taylor had the idea to make a new work that tackled similar social justice issues, he knew there were two places to start. Hip hop was the first. A memory from his childhood was the second.

“My mom had that conversation with me when I was seven or eight years old, and along with my older brothers about the concept of racism. It had come up at school with my brothers and it had come up a couple of times,” Taylor recalled. “And it was like ‘we got to have a conversation about how the world sees you stereotypically in a negative way; how authorities will see and treat you because of that; how police will see you and treat you because of that; what will be assumed of you.’”

Taylor knows his family wasn’t the only one having this conversation. He recognizes that a number of racialized and marginalized groups have similar discussions with their children. At the same time, he is also aware that others feel that childhood may be too early for that conversation- but not everyone has that choice. 

Around the same time in his life, Taylor began to be drawn to dance and hip hop in particular. He identified with people who looked like him, having success in art and he loved to move. Dance became his passion, and eventually his career, as Taylor opened Defining Movement Dance on Upper James, where he runs a studio that teaches dance to the next generation of artists.      

“The way I teach hip hop, and the way I teach street dancing, salsa and other forms, I often go from the cultural standpoint.” explained Taylor. “With those dances, it is political as well, because that’s how it started. . .And I teach in terms of culture and history and how those things influenced the dance styles, dance culture- and hip hop in particular.”

Taylor in performance (photo courtesy of Josh Taylor).

The two ideas- a childhood conversation and a beloved art form- combine with The Uncomfortable Project; an inter-arts dance show carefully developed by Taylor. Originally conceived pre-pandemic, the project has slowly built to the form that will be presented from January 27 to 29 at Theatre Aquarius Studio Theatre. 

A test-run of the concept took place in partnership with Aeris Korper Dance Theatre in 2022, where Taylor offered an excerpt of The Uncomfortable Project as part of the company’s Prospects event for choreographic works-in-progress. During the event, Taylor was not only able to offer an initial glimpse into the creative process of the work, but gather audience feedback as well that impacted the final Project. 

“The way that people responded to the engagement [from Prospects] going into the piece was very strong.” noted Taylor. “People felt that talking to them directly and then moving into this narrative was really powerful and moved them.” 

In addition to gathering audience feedback and reactions, Taylor also realized that an unfinished and unpolished work could be more impactful than a flawless one. He relates it to hip hop by noting its start- as a raw, grassroots, community based artform offered as a method of release and expression.

Taylor’s hope for The Uncomfortable Project is that audience members will have a similar experience. To build a community around the Project, Taylor brought in a number of collaborators- all of whom he notes, are extremely talented and he “loves them all.”

Among those the audience will experience as part of The Uncomfortable Project include twelve local dancers join Taylor and co-choreographer Janessa Pudwell in the performance. A third choreographer, Miguel Ramirez, has also contributed. Original live music for the performance is provided by Elley Jeeze, with original audio and art by Leon ‘Eklipz’ Robinson. Local spoken word artist and poet Fareh Malik, who won the 2022 RBC Pen Canada New Voices Award, joins Taylor in offering poetry as part of the performance. Choreographer Alyssa Nedich oversees the various components as Assistant Director and Stage Manager of the Project. 

In addition to combining his initial inspiration of his childhood and love of hip hop, as well as the community being built through The Uncomfortable Project, Taylor is also thinking about how he can continue to develop the next generation of socially-conscious citizens and dancers through the performance. Half of the ticket sales for The Uncomfortable Project will be used to support a youth-focused dance bursary so that young people who may face systemic issues in accessing dance classes are able to do so. To date, the bursary has raised approximately a thousand dollars.

“I do know the power of dance.” Taylor says at the end of our conversation. “It’s transformative.”      

Who: Josh Taylor and friends
What: The Uncomfortable Project
Where: Theatre Aquarius Studio (190 King William Street)
When:  January 27 at 1pm; January 28 at 7:30pm (sold out); January 29 at 7:30pm
Tickets: Sliding scale prices through Eventbrite

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