Friday, 1 June 2018

Ballet Creole's New Work is a Tribute to a Black Canadian Slave - Chloe Cooley

By Neil Armstrong
A Review

Photo credit: Peter Lear    Gabriella Parson as Harriet Tubman in Ballet Creole's 'Cry Freedom.'

Although Ballet Creole’s new dance production, “Cry Freedom,” was not held during 2017, the sesquicentennial of Canada, it provided an important lesson about a significant figure – a Black woman – in the country’s history of slavery.

“Cry Freedom” was presented at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto as part of their NextSteps series.

To celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary, the company presented a multimedia dance and drama show commemorating the story of Chloe Cooley, an enslaved woman in Upper Canada.

Her struggles in 1793 served as the catalyst for the passing of the first legislation in the British colonies to restrict the slave trade, setting the stage for the Underground Railroad.

Since its inception in 1990, Ballet Creole has been forging a new language in the dance world, a blend of the old and new world, and a creolization or melding of diverse dance and music traditions.

“Cry Freedom” is its bold move to include actors and spoken word in its world premiere to tell this important but little-known story.

It was apt that the show opened with spoken word “Our Unconscious Self” by Husam Alaghbari and a storytelling scene, “Reflection,” of an elder sharing her wisdom with kids young enough to be her grandchildren.

She tells them of their forebears and the movement soon shifts to Act 1 “Africa,” where we see the gathering of the vibrant Baga and Malinke communities.

Master drummer, Amadou Kienou, a descendant of the Dafin people, complements the narrative and movement that unfold on stage.

He is a djeli or griot, an oral historian charged with the role of preserving and transmitting his people's history, culture and values.

On stage the lives of Africans shattered by captivity, the slave ship, the auction block and the plantation are depicted in scene 1 of Act 2 “Unforgiven Time” with images of slaves shackled onboard ships, being sold and dance accompanying a video of life on the plantation.

It is within a space of displacement in Canada, in scene 2 that we witness the “Consciousness of Chloe Cooley” – her resistance to slavery is demonstrated by performers: actress, storyteller and playwright, Djennie Laguerre; Yuhala Muy Garcia, Chelcia Creary and Denise Cavalier.

Photo credit: Peter Lear         Ballet Creole's 'Cry Freedom'

Photo credit: Peter Lear        Ballet Creole's 'Cry Freedom'

Luther Hansraj, a multidisciplinary theatre artist/actor, plays Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, Gabriella Parson as Harriet Tubman (a seminal figure in the Underground Railroad), and the Freedom Train is performed by dancers: Alistair Graphine, Shavaun Brown, Rohan Christian, Falciony Patino, Sani-Abu Mohammed, Yuhala Muy Garcia, Gabriella Parson and Chelcia Creary.

Nawa Simon, Denise Cavalier, Djennie Laguerre, Walter Maclean, Richard Guttierez and Aisha Daniels were also a part of the train.

The 95-minute production also featured in scene 3 the 1812 Richard Pierpoint “Coloured Corp” with Parson and Laguerre with choreography by Anthony “Prime” Guerra, choreographer, dancer and dance elder.

Kienou’s artistry in drumming accentuated the live music score for Ballet
Creole's new work accompanied by the talented Creole Drummatix, the company’s music ensemble.

Through his musical prowess, he helped in bringing the story of Cooley to life.

 The music and choreography were inspired by and reflected aspects of Cooley's story, capturing her bravery, the repercussions of her actions, and how it relates to the Canada today.

Scene 4 paints a portrait of the present day through five pieces: “Freedom?,” “My Black,” “Goddam,” – performed to Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’ -- “Our Legacies” and “Hymn to Freedom” named after one of Oscar Peterson’s most significant compositions.

“Cry Freedom” was presented in collaboration with the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) and the Canadian Caribbean Association of Halton.

In a message in the programme, Natasha Henry, president of the OBHS writes: “It is likely that Chloe did not know she left such an indelible mark on our history, since she was sold away. She represents the long history of how the amplified voices of Black women have and continue to stir an awakening and influence change. The 225th anniversary of the famed Chloe Cooley incident serves as a call to honout our ancestors. We must speak, write, sing and dance Chloe Cooley and the many other Black women and men into remembrance. Ballet Creole’s remarkable production, Cry Freedom does exactly that.”

I concur. Ballet Creole told a story worth remembering.

Ballet Creole’s executive and artistic director, Patrick Parson, the dancers, musicians, actors, spoken word artist, choreographers and creative team  should be commended for shining the light on this important figure in Canadian history – and “Cry Freedom” should be embraced by school boards and presented in schools. 

[This review has been published in the North American Weekly Gleaner, May 31-June 6, 2018.]

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