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PuSh Festival: With DARKMATTER, choreographer Cherish Menzo detaches Black bodies from ways in which they’re perceived

PuSh Festival DARKMATTER Bas de Brouwer
Dancer Camilo Mejía Cortés performs with Cherish Menzo in DARKMATTER. Photo by Bas de Brouwer.

Choreographer and dancer Cherish Menzo is unafraid of addressing big ideas—including post-humanism and Afro-futurism—in her newest work. Or, for that matter, the landmark Haitian Revolution in 1804.

These subjects all surface in DARKMATTER, which Menzo will perform with dancer Camilo Mejía Cortés at this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.

“I felt very much the need to speculate about the Black body and to bring it more into an opaque space,” Menzo tells Pancouver over Zoom from her hometown of Amsterdam. “I specifically put a strike through ‘dark’ to create, on one hand, a focus.”

She feels that this title lifts a certain burden. In addition, striking out the word “dark” actually has the opposite effect of emphasizing darkness, in her view. She points out  that there is more dark matter than visible matter in the universe, even though it’s optically not perceivable.

“How do we relate to darkness, being of dark-skinned complexion, but also darkness in general?” Menzo asks. “That, for me, was an interesting playground to be at.”

According to the PuSh festival website, DARKMATTER’s two dancers “find new ways to examine and detach their bodies from the ways they are perceived and the daily realities in which they move”.

Menzo is of Surinamese ancestry whereas Cortés hails from Colombia. As the choreographer, Menzo says that she gave a great deal of agency to him in his interpretation of the work.

“Camilo has written part of the lyrics that he performs,” she notes.

Watch the trailer for DARKMATTER.

Menzo adjusts perceptions with distortion

For part of the music and text, Menzo looked to the mid-20th-century opera Troubled Island. It was composed by William Grant Still, often called the “Dean of Afro-American Composers”. Langston Hughes and Verna Arvey’s libretto revolves around Haitian revolutionary leader Jean Jacques Dessalines, who overthrew French colonial rule.

DARKMATTER also draws on the work of Drexciya, an innovative Detroit-based electronic-music duo in the 1990s and early 2000s. On their albums, they speculated about the future while also referring to the transatlantic slave trade.

Menzo insists that all the elements in this production co-exist with the performing bodies rather than simply playing supporting roles. For example, the team brought distortion not only to the bodies but also to the sound and Morgana Machado Marques’s scenography. Gagi Petrovic and Michael Nunes created the musical composition; GRIP and Frascati Producties prepared the music list.

In addition to Menzo and Cortés, text was created by BOИSU and Shari Kok-Sey-Tjong, who also provided vocal and delivery coaching.

“I worked with a remix technique—Chopped and Screwed—from Houston, Texas, from the pioneer DJ Screw,” Menzo reveals.

Last November, Bleu Magazine writer S.Y. noted that DJ Screw’s style “involves slowing down the tempo of a track down to 60 and 70 quarter-notes and editing it to create a mellow, syrupy sound”.

In researching DARKMATTER, Menzo had many Western European references to post-humanism, which rejects anthropocentric dominance. She also investigated how it has been applied to colonial times.

“After that, I found that because Afro-futurism is already bringing a very vast tangibility on future perspectives of Black bodies—African descendant bodies—within the future and in different disciplines, post-humanism and Afro-futurism became the two pillars for the work,” she states.

Menzo
DARKMATTER includes rap performances. Image by Yaqine Hamzaoui, Yema Gieskes, and Anneleen Hermans.

Jezebel also addressed stereotypes

When asked about the origins of DARKMATTER, Menzo replies that it initially emerged while she was creating her previous solo show, Jezebel. In that production, she questioned the hypersexualization of female Black bodies within visual culture in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Menzo notes that the title refers to the Black Jezebel stereotype, not the Biblical Jezebel. In researching this earlier production, she examined three archetypes. Menzo acknowledges that they are caricatures but they also originated in colonial times when the “Jezebel” label described a hypersexual and manipulative female African descendant.

“This idea of Jezebel is still very present in those hip-hop or rap video clips,” she states. “And maybe still now today in a lot of pop culture.”

DARKMATTER is coming to Vancouver after a tumultuous year in the Netherlands. In November, far-right, anti-immigrant populist Geert Wilders’s party won the most seats in the Dutch national election, which Menzo describes as “very scary”.

This followed King Willem-Alexander’s formal apology on July 1 for his country’s role in promoting slavery in colonial times. Dutch ships transported more than 600,000 Africans cross the Atlantic Ocean to be sold as slaves or forced to work on plantations. About 75,000 did not survive the journey.

“For me, personally, I think it’s important that now, we start to talk about the colonial past of the Netherlands,” Menzo says.

Event details

The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival will present DARKMATTER in partnership with Woodward’s Cultural Programs and Artspeak. Live performances will take place from January 29 to 31 in the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre in the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts from January 29 to 31. DARKMATTER will also be available online from January 29 to February 4. For tickets and more information, visit the PuSh festival website.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.