ILL NANA has been fusing modern dance, postmodern dance and classical ballet with a fashionable gender-funk flair for years, and now the dance establishment is starting to take notice.
“We use dance as a platform to change the world, by sharing our stories and experiences,” says company member Sze-Yang Ade-Lam. “By doing this, we are representing people — people of colour, gender-variant people, queer people, people with different body types — that are usually either poorly portrayed, as a stereotype, or not portrayed at all in mainstream media.”
ILL NANA began at the School of Toronto Dance Theatre in 2007. Cofounders (and now husbands) Jelani Ade-Lam and Sze-Yang Ade-Lam entered a student choreography competition with best friend Rénald Jean-Pierre. Their performance — in drag — was met with rave reviews by students and teachers alike.
The three men formed the original incarnation of the group. In 2009, they added a female member, Kristina Udegbunam. Udegbunam had studied with the others at the School of Toronto Dance Theatre and had not gone unnoticed.
“I am all woman, and I bring forth the magnified version of the innate strength found in every woman.”
Udegbunam says she adds the female yin energy the group was previously missing.
The company’s name was inspired by rapper Foxy Brown’s tune “Ill Nana” — meaning illest female, or a woman of absolute power. They’ve since added the tag DiverseCity Dance Company (DCDC) to pay homage to queer identity, while also giving respect to Toronto.
These dancers have something special going on. They have been invited to perform at The Art Gallery of Ontario, LG Fashion Week Party of Style, Inside Out’s 20th Anniversary Gala and at festivals like Pride Toronto and Rhubarb.
ILL NANA/DCDC’s talent caught the attention of one of Toronto’s renowned contemporary dance companies, The Chimera Project. The dancers were quickly tapped for The Chimera Project’s Fresh Blood — a showcase dedicated to pushing emerging Canadian choreographers to the forefront, says Malgorzata Nowacka, artistic director of the project.
“Some of their movement development, specifically in their intricate, high-energy sections, is so unique in the contemporary dance world that even if they were not queer positive, they’d still really stand out.”
Nowacka says there is no other active company in Toronto as flamboyant as ILL NANA/DCDC.
“We thought [Fresh Blood] was a great way to reenter the contemporary dance community,” the group says, noting that they have been performing mainly in clubs for the past couple of years.
Jelani Ade-Lam hopes ILL NANA will operate as a full-time dance company one day. But these self-proclaimed “super queeroes” have ambitions that extend beyond their personal success.
“One day we hope to open a dance school that creates a safe and accessible space for all people, but specifically the [queer] community, to learn and enjoy the beauty of dance,” he says.