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Dance Performance, Workshop Asks ‘What Does It Mean to Belong?’

By Zenebou Sylla ‘22

Emerson’s Intercultural Student Affairs office will be hosting Hot Water Over Raised Fists, a digital dance performance and workshop that explores the experiences of Black and Indigenous women in America, this Friday April 2, at 3:00 pm.

Hot Water Over Raised Fists, uses movement, light, sculptural elements, and site-specificity to create an experience of empathy and hope. Friday’s event will feature a 15-minute digital excerpt from the full 70-minute production, featuring two Black Indigenous women — Jenny Oliver, an affiliated faculty member in the Performing Arts Department; and embodied justice educator sadada jackson — whose ancestral and traditional lands directly connect to the land that Emerson College sits on. 

Register via Zoom

Oliver, who is also the production’s creative director and choreographer, describes Hot Water Over Raised Fists as an interdisciplinary immersive dance experience that aims to educate individuals about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and also simultaneously bring awareness of the murders of Black and Indigenous women in the U.S.

Hot Water is a lot. It is a huge sort of living piece of moving art to allow us to have conversations, to introduce people to issues that they have either forgotten about or that maybe they didn’t realize were even happening,” said Oliver.

The idea for the production dates back about six or seven years ago, from a rally Oliver attended about the water crisis in Flint, and evolved to involve other social issues later down the line, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Standing Rock protests. 

Oliver said working on this project with Jackson helped them both share their experiences of being Black and Native women living in a colonized society, while growing in similar institutions that compelled them to have discussions about how they were doing and they can reclaim their roots from these experiences.

“We created this 15-minute digital form that literally looks at what is belonging? What is it to belong to yourself and to belong to other people? What is it to be either Black or to be Native in these spaces where you’re not really seen or that your perspective has already met your expectations as to what identities are,” said Oliver.  

The workshop will start off with a discussion guided by questions revolving around relationships, relationships with the environment, among other topics.

jackson, who is also a performer and narrator in the film, explained how the pandemic has impacted her role in the project, especially as a descendant of two indigenous peoples: freedmen and enslaved Black West Africans and Nipmuc.

“An important aspect of being a creative, for me, is the struggle for integrity… Being a creative during these pandemics [jackson acknowledges pandemics COVID-19, white supremacy, consumer capitalism, and colonization] gives me a place to be with my struggle, to express my struggle, and to work through what is difficult for me in these moments in time,” she said.

“It also means that I have a way to express what is joyous, healing, and possible for me and for others during this time. My work in Hot Water Over Raised Fists allowed me to get deeper into what it meant to belong and what it is [that] impedes my sense of belonging. I used my work in this [piece] to go down deep into the pain and the original wound of not feeling lovable, seen, accepted. I did this to face this pain and see that it was no longer mine, nor did it have anything to do with who I am– a Black Native woman,” said jackson. 

Both Oliver and jackson said that work on the project slowed down during the lockdown due to creative limitations, but after Director of Intercultural Student Affairs tamia jordan invited them to host a conversation about Hot Water, it inspired them to construct a digital format of the performance. 

Worlanyo Mensah ’23, a Media Arts Production major and Intercultural Student Affairs’ student assistant for Indigenous sovereignty projects, said it was rewarding and an honor to work on marketing for the event. 

“It’s so rich in culture, understanding more about the Massachusett people, about how it is being Indigenous, about how it is being Black, and I’m just glad to be part of the marketing for it,” said Mensah. 

Mensah, who has been involved in creating the poster, the trailer, social media, and outreach for the project, described that it is inspirational to work with individuals like Oliver and jackson as a film major herself and hopes that people like herself can take away something from this digital adaptation.

“Being able to speak to them, who are also amazing artists, amazing at what they’re doing, what they’re trying to put out to the world, it’s very inspiring,” said Mensah. “I would love for [audiences] to be able to learn about the relationship the Massachusett people… how they all see nature, how they see their environment around them, how important art and dance is… to understand the land we walk on and the people who were here before us.” 

While some work and practices took place virtually, such as the collaborative duet of Oliver and jackson, the final dance rehearsal and the filming of the performance took place in-person while following COVID guidelines, testing prior to arrival, and acknowledging the comfort of safe interactions among the cast and crew.

jackson said that collaborating with Oliver over many years has helped them build a deep level of trust.

“I am so grateful to have been on a dance floor with her for over 15 years now. She has always made a space for me to dance from my heart and explore what is healing and transformative to me as a dancer and a friend. There is a deep trust between us as creatives,” jackson said.

During the pandemic, Oliver said she realized how interconnected we all are and how one’s decisions have a direct impact on others, and she hopes that the event will allow people to develop stronger mindfulness of themselves, their relationships with other individuals, and their environment, while also feeling energized and grounded from the conversations that will happen.  

“[This is] an opportunity and a time for them to really consider their own belongings and to consider their own relationships within their lives,” said Oliver.

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