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  • "Were there is music, dance always is. It becomes part of the storytelling," said Toronto-based multidimensional performing artist Nicole Brooks, while speaking to AfroToronto.com about the long tradition of Caribbean and African dance. Brooks is the creator of Obeah Opera -- a musical retelling of the legendary Salem witch trials from the fascinating perspective of Caribbean slave women. It was recently featured as part of the Fall for Dance North festival, one of Canada's leading international dance showcases. Obeah Opera had also been on the international spotlight for its world premiere at PANAMANIA, held in Toronto back in 2015.

    Since its inception as a 10-minute show at Rock.Paper.Sistahz in b current's 2008-2009 seasons, Obeah Opera has grown significantly. "After the 2015 Pan-Am games, I was determined to have the show mounted again," said Brooks. "It was the first time that I was able to get the play to about two hours, and it's the closest to my vision; but it's still not my vision."

    Nicole Brooks

    Brooks' aim is to break the traditional mold of theatrical productions in Canada where it's often a challenge to obtain institutional or government support to remount the same work. She knew that while Toronto's mini olympics represented an awesome platform, Obeah Opera had not attained its full fruition. She merely had a blueprint to make this play Broadway-type and Broadway-bound.

    "People ask me all the time: What's your next work? My response is this work is not done. I'm going to continue pushing this work until it's finished.... I just feel really privileged that I've been afforded the opportunity to have this work evolve."

    The Fall for Dance North festival (which ran October 2–6, 2018), offered Brooks the opportunity to really focus of bringing out, and refining, the dance elements of Obeah Opera. It was also an expressed requirement from the festival's artistic director that the show be performed with live music in order to give the audience the full experience.

    Rather than an excerpt of the play, Fall for Dance North was a compilation. "We picked various materials and music from the play and looked at the different types of dances that we could put in -- with the emphasis on Caribbean traditional and African traditional," as Brooks noted.

    Brooks expressed how proud she was to showcase the work of choreographer Anthony 'Prime' Guerra on such a prominent stage. "I looked at this as a platform to introduce the work, to introduce myself, and to introduce Prime to a new world of dance and letting them experience something very different," she said.

    Anthony Prime Guerra

    "As the writer of the work and with music as my forte, having Anthony 'Prime' Guerra really concentrate on the dance, and have that become an integral part of the storytelling, is going to make the work catastrophically better."

    Through the process, they looked at different Caribbean islands and regions of the African continent for dance and movement inspiration.

    "All of our storytelling as Caribbean and I'll say emphatically African people tell stories through dance, music and drama. It's never separated. So there's a call for me towards that; and I'm really excited about the creative journey," said Brooks.

    After Fall for Dance North, her goal is now to "go into a very intense dramaturge session for about two to three months to develop the rest of the work." She has further plans for Obeah Opera spanning from next year, marking her tenth year on this work, to beyond. Some of the dance numbers developed for Fall for Dance North will be in the final iteration of the play.

    "Once I get the play where it needs to be, it will be its final version ready to tour. I have my eye set specifically on South Africa as a first stop," as Brooks stated. "The choreographer and I really pinpointed various sections, integral pieces, where we're going to develop the dance -- which is very exciting for me." 

    "We're bringing it; we're bringing the colour and we're bringing the melanin."

  • Oraltorio: A Theatrical Mixtape -- anObsidian Theatre production, presented in partnership withSoulpepper Theatre -- written and performed by multidisciplinarian spoken word artist Motion, and infused by enthralling musical soundscapes of DJ L’Oqenz, is currently running at theYoung Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane) until October 20, 2018.

    This is the story of two Toronto-bred young women, Motion as the B-Girl and L’Oqenz as the DJ, navigating through life and their womanhood in search of agency. Their quest is set through the background and history of the beats, music, rhymes and song lyrics that have come to shape their identity.

    Directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, Oraltorio is set in an Afrofuturistc aesthetic realm where the worlds of spoken word, emceeing and DJing coalesce. The visually stimulating theatrical universe created by André du Toit’s lighting, and grounded in the hip hop-inspired catacombs of Jackie Chau’s set, add unmistakable character to the show's auditory journey.

    "The show was born out of a lot of my own, as well as L’Oqenz's, experiences with music and growing up around music, around the evolution of hip hop, and being inspired by black women artists and musicians," as Motion recently explained to AfroToronto.com. "As well as the role that music has played in the lives and history of people from the African diaspora. The collective experience of a people."

    Digging back into the roots

    Delving a bit deeper into the origins of Oraltorio, Motion recalls a collaboration show she worked on years ago for the Urban Music Awards, called Musik, where she charted the evolution of the connections between the griots of West Africa all the way to the emcees of hip hop culture.

    "That piece inspired me to continue writing a larger work that would blend soundscape with words and with theatre -- to look at the role that music and sound have played as tools of resistance against silencing in black women's lives," as Motion explained. "I would say that's definitely the genesis of Oraltorio."

    DJ L'Oqenz (back) and MOTION. Photo: Cesar Ghisilieri

    She soon joined forces with DJ L'Oquenz after this epiphany to work together on creating the soundscape and the music for it. "We really thought about the concept of a theatrical mixtape," she said. The idea was to dramatize a mixtape where the iconic sounds from the DJ culture they both grew up with would be overlayered with soundbites, sung or spoken, from different flavours and stories.

    "What we've grown to understand through this creative process is just the fluidity of how this work can live. It can live with one mic and a DJ; and it can live in its full production experience with the visuals and working with choreographers and movement specialists," said Motion. "There's so many different ways and formats through which we've been able to find the story and find how different audiences can experience it."

    As the concept grew from inception to its current form, various versions of Oraltorio saw the light of day over the years in places like b current's Rock.Paper.Sistahz Festival, readings at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre's Rhubard Festival, the Piece of Mine Festival, and its first full production as part of Why Not Theatre's Riser Project -- which took place at the Theatre Centre in 2016.

    Also in 2016, Motion and L'Oquenz had the opportunity to travel to Ghana with the Northern Griots Network to showcase Oraltorio at the Chale Wote Street Art Festival, as well as the Nkabom Literary Festival.

    "Our Ghana experience was great because we actually found ourselves at the birthplace of so much of the musical inspiration that we touch upon in Oraltorio," as Motion shared. They performed to a large audience as part of the closing night of the Chale Wote Festival.

    "To be surrounded and immersed in so much artistic expression was really inspirational. It just deepened our connection to the rhythm of the piece; to the ancestry of Oraltorio. Showing that no matter where you go in the world where you find people of the African diaspora, there are audible ties that connect us [through] the way that we express ourselves. [Be it through] spirituality, though dance, through survival, through protesting disparity, through the quest for freedom."

    "What we also continue to connect to is the cross-generational strength through which, despite how often we are silenced, or our voices are dampened, we find ways to be heard. So Oraltorio is an ode to that resistance."

     

    Show info:

    Oraltorio: A Theatrical Mixtape

    Runs to October 20. $25-$35.
    Young Centre for the Performing Arts
    50 Tank House Lane, Toronto ON, M5A 3C4

    Tickets

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