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Obsidian Dance Repertory’s year of return 

Director Toni Renee Johnson talks about upcoming performance

As part of the Savannah Black Heritage Festival, the Obsidian Dance Repertory is prepping a performance entitled "The Year of Return." It’s a concert that will symbolize, through dance, the first enslaved person arriving in Jamestown, Virginia, 400 years ago. "The Year of Return" is a powerful display of art by Savannah State University’s pre-professional dance company, led by director Toni Renee Johnson.

A press release for the event describes “The Year of Return” as “a movement tapestry dancing across the African diaspora, paying tribute to our return to beauty from ashes.”

Ahead of the concert, which runs from Feb. 20 (as an open dress rehearsal) to the 22nd at 7 P.M. at the Kennedy Fine Arts Building, here’s what you need to know about Obsidian Dance Repertory and this moving dance performance.

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Obsidian was formed to help students transition to the professional world

Johnson moved to Savannah from New York City and started Obsidian Dance Repertory as a way to help students bridge the gap between their dance education and the professional world.

“I took a job at Savannah State as the Assistant Professor of Dance, and one of the things that I noticed was lacking in the department was offering students real-world exposure and pre-professional experience on stage, as well as networking with peers and master choreographers,” she says.

“I wanted to be able to establish a company that gave students that opportunity to bridge the gap between amateur and professional, so that they get some real experience underneath them and have something to put on their resumes. I wanted them to be more prepared going out into the dance world.”

They’ve traveled to China for a collaborative dance production

“For some of the students, that was the first time that they’d even been on a plane. So, to travel almost 18 hours or more across the world, as your first experience, was pretty dope,” Johnson says.

When they arrived in China, the language and cultural barriers were quickly shattered when they met with students from a local dance program and collaborated on a production.

“We communicated through our bodies. We communicated through movement, because there was limited—if any—direct communication verbally. We didn’t have that fluency. Our production wound up being well-attended, and we were able to blend our cultures and make art. It was very profound what we were able to put together in such a short time, but it was substantive and beautiful.”

The Year of Return is an event among the African Diaspora, commemorating 400 years since the first enslaved person was brought in Virginia

Johnson says that her event will commemorate the Year of Return, which pays homage to the pivotal moment in African history.

“In forming this concert, I wanted a way to celebrate the African Diaspora. The idea is that before slavery, Africans were fine in their own world and their own spaces. Highly productive and highly intelligent. When we were brought into slavery by our own people and by the white man, that was stolen from us,” she explains.

“That greatness that already existed was stolen. The Year of Return commemorates the first footsteps in Jamestown 400 years ago, but it also commemorates returning beauty from ashes. We were never really in ashes—now, it’s a bettering of the self, after having gone through something as a diaspora. This concert is not a narrative; it doesn’t tell the story of slavery. What it does is that it brings out the essence of the greatness of the African Diaspora, from the time when we were in our own land and doing our own thing. Spanning the universe, spanning the world, and landing in places to be even better than we were.”

The upcoming concert, which will commemorate not just African-American history but many different cultures among the Diaspora, will feature dancers from Obsidian as well as a crossover piece of Afro-Peruvian dance from Dr. Kisha Aites.

“This concert is of the people. It’s about the experience, and it’s of the people, and it’s about a return to greatness, Johnson says.

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The Year Of Return / Savannah Black Heritage Festival @Kennedy Fine Arts Building at Savannah State University

Thurs., Feb. 20-Sat., Feb. 22, 7 P.M., $10 [$5 for students]

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Sean Kelly

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