Our Bodies Back, a Dance Film Responding to Violence Against Black Women

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Our Bodies Back featuring dancer and choreographer
Our Bodies Back, 2020(Film still) Featuring dancer and choreographer Nafisah Baba

Director Jonzi D tells AnOther how Our Bodies Back was created during lockdown in response to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations happening across the world

Since the introduction of the UK’s lockdown in March, Sadler’s Wells has presented its Digital Stage programme, offering would-be theatregoers the opportunity to watch performances and workshops from home. Of course in the midst of lockdown, the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction around the world as global protests erupted following the murder of George Floyd. And it was during the height of these anti-racism protests that Jonzi D was moved to make Our Bodies Back, a film newly released this week. As an Associate Artist at Sadlers Wells and the founder and artistic director of Breakin’ Convention – Sadler’s Wells’ hip hop theatre platform and programme – Jonzi D set about creating a film in response to the global movement, addressing the racial injustices faced by Black individuals across the world through dance and poetry. 

Our Bodies Back takes its name from a poem by jessica Care moore, We Want Our Bodies Back, which was written in response to the death of Sandra Bland in 2015. The poem’s powerful, urgent words are just as relevant five years later, following not only Floyd’s death in May but that of Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and countless others at the hands of police officers. As moore, who is based in Detroit, reads her poem we see three dancers and choreographers – Axelle ‘Ebony’ MunezeroBolegue Manuela and Nafisah Baba, based in Montreal, Hanover and London respectively – perform dance pieces alternately over the course of five minutes.

For director Jonzi D, making Our Bodies Back – all filmed and produced remotely – was a matter of urgency. “One week after George Floyd’s murder, and in the heat of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, I had enough,” he says. “No more walking on eggshells, no more code switching, no more concern about white fragility.” Having previously collaborated with moore, the pair reunited to create this ‘choreopoetry’, a combination of dance and poetry. “I’ve always wanted to put poems in dancers’ bodies,” says moore in a film detailing the making of Our Bodies Back

The film centres on the poem and moore’s emphatic reading – “[the text is] not only very rich but her delivery and the pacing of it is relentless,” notes sound designer Soweto Kinch – with each dancer bringing their own personal response to their movements. We Want Our Bodies Back is a rallying cry against racism and the injustices faced by Black women. “I listened to the poem over and over and over again, just to see what images came to mind I wanted to convey as humanly and artistically as possible, and I really felt the pain of it,” explains London-based dancer Baba. “Really, you can’t read that and not feel the pain, whoever you are. So I thought it was important to feel, and to put that feeling into movement.” Here, Jonzi D tells AnOther how the film came about, and how he hopes it will inspire empathy and empowerment.

“Every Black hip-hop poet knew jessica’s work in the 90s, she won It’s Showtime at the Apollo a record five times! We toured the UK together in 1996, followed by San Francisco and Atlanta when I was still performing Lyrikal Fearta. While hanging out in London last year, we spoke about her interest and experience in choreopoetry. So when the opportunity came, I called her. 

“The poem We Want Our Bodies Back was written for Sandra Bland. A Black woman tortured, then murdered by state-sponsored racist thugs masquerading as law enforcement. The dancers had to be able to embody the poem. They had to explore their shared experience, as Black women. Beyond this kindred spirit, each dancer specialises in a different technique. Nafisah, with her neo-classical lines, Axelle with her emotive waaking arm gestures, and b-girl Manuela with her tricks and power moves. A variety of examples of Black excellence, and they could all be Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Natasha McKenna, India Kager, et cetera. 

“[The film] was the result of a heated discussion with Sadler’s Wells’ boss man Alistair Spalding. One week after George Floyd’s murder, and in the heat of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, I had enough. No more walking on eggshells, no more code switching, no more concern about white fragility. This was time to tell boss man to fix up and acknowledge the racist high arts infrastructure that the privileged take for granted. Instead of getting a P45, Alistair gave me a commission to make this film. 

“[Creating a film during lockdown] was OK! Obviously I would’ve preferred to take the trip to Detroit, Montreal and Hanover, but fortunately all the artists and filmmakers involved are consummate professionals who worked to the brief. The blueprint that is jessica’s poem was enough to map out the structure. Connectedness was important. Choreographically I wanted there to be a connectedness, so the ends and the beginnings of each dancer’s work was shared. The dancers had to share the endings and beginnings of their solo movement material via WhatsApp. In b-boy terminology, this sharing of movement phrase as dancers transition is known as ‘commando style’. 

“I hope the film allows us to experience empathy. To overstand how beauty, trauma and resistance can share the same moment. I hope Black women are empowered by the film, and that I can be an ally in the struggle for justice and equality. I hope my mother is proud of me.”

Watch Our Bodies Back on Sadlers Wells’ Youtube channel, and explore Breakin’ Convention’s programmes and events online.