‘I feel like she’s penetrating my soul’: the power of Our Bodies Back

Under a blanket of white cloud on a Montreal rooftop, dancer Axelle “Ebony” Munezero’s hands clasp over her mouth while potent words ring out in the voice of poet jessica Care moore. “I got life. / Sandra Bland got the death penalty / for a traffic stop. Her body was 28 / years young.” Munezero’s body flinches with every beat, each one a violent blow.

The black-and-white film, Our Bodies Back, is only five minutes long, but it’s a rich and powerful weaving of poetry and dance. At once a moving tribute to Bland, Breonna Taylor and countless black women who’ve suffered violence, and a clear-eyed, undaunted demand for respect and urgent change.

Commissioned by Sadler’s Wells, Our Bodies Back is directed by hip-hop theatre pioneer Jonzi D, who thought the work of Detroit poet moore was asking to be danced to. “I’ve always felt energised by her delivery and I feel like I want to move when I hear her poetry,” he says.

He chose three very different dancers, in three separate continents, linked by choreography. “I wanted to show there’s no stereotype in relation to what black women do,” he says. In London, the elegance and pointed eloquence of classically trained Nafisah Baba was shot by Jonzi on his iPhone. In Hanover, breakdancer Manuela Bolegue’s footwork chases the saxophone squall of Soweto Kinch’s soundtrack. In Montreal, Munezero has gripping intensity and arresting presence. As Jonzi puts it: “The way she looks into the camera, I feel like she’s penetrating my soul.”

“It shook my body,” says Munezero about her first hearing of the poem. “It brought me back to some memories, got me thinking about my own journey as a black woman, the whole process I had to go through to now be telling stories with my body.”

Munezero fled to Canada aged four, escaping civil war in Burundi. “When I was a child, my mum would tell us about back home and how we got here and I couldn’t understand why she kept telling us those sad stories. But with this piece I wanted to represent the heaviness of the poem, the fact that even though it’s intense and sad and it hurts, hearing it helps the healing process. Sometimes I feel that my body remembers things that I don’t,” she adds. “Some trauma or memories that I can’t even explain but it only comes out when I’m dancing. This poem for me was liberating because I could go there.”

The three women choreographed their own material, and Jonzi sees the irony that perhaps, in the name of empowerment, a woman should have directed the film, too (he worked with his wife Jane Sekonya John as assistant director), but he tried to “use my privilege” to give a platform to female artists. Jonzi has been instrumental in nurturing and promoting black artists for more than a decade through the annual hip-hop festival Breakin’ Convention, but still doesn’t see enough female leaders, “the woman being the person with the vision, I want to encourage that more”.

“There are big structural things we need to start looking at, from very young,” he says. “Everybody needs to be raised with knowledge of their maximum power. And I think with this film, you see black women with maximum emotional power, dance power, poetic power.”

He’s optimistic about the future but still sees barriers for the black artists he works with, male and female. “One of the things you hear regarding black work is: ‘We’ve got to do things for our audience, we’re not sure if our audience will be into that’. For me, if you invest in work that is high quality, the audience will come to see it. And I think we’ve proven that with Breakin’ Convention.

“The elitism that these spaces hold on to is palpable,” he says. “You feel it as soon as you walk in. I’ve been at Sadler’s Wells for 17 years, yet still some of the audience members will look at me and I get this feeling from them that they’re thinking: ‘Why is he here?’ Because I’ve got my big trainers, I’ve got my big locks, I’m smiling and talking to people, maybe a little bit loud.”

Munezero speaks of similar experiences. As the only black woman on her contemporary dance degree, she repeatedly faced assumptions and prejudices. “People would say, oh you’re black, you must be able to jump higher, or you must have a better sense of the music.” She was told her body wasn’t right for certain things, that she needed to fit in more. “I was told I was too intense and I tried to tone it down,” she says. “But I’m finally trying not to censor myself any more.”