Princess Mhoon Cooper is Celebrating Chicago’s Black History Through Movement And Technology This Summer


Princess Mhoon Cooper is being watched. 

Immortalized Titans peer at the choreographer turned director and her daughter through a window of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. Cooper brought the ten-year-old to an interview promoting her film. The child gazes at bronze busts curiously as her mother describes her vision for The Big Bang: Movement Theory + the Black Dancing Body.

“Mommy, who is that?” 

Cooper pauses before facing Marshall Field and Frank Winfield Woolworth. Later, she tells a crowd that after a lifetime of Black Chicagoans learning their stories, these lauded men are about to learn theirs. 

“Tonight, they’ll watch our story,” she says as guests applaud. 

The Big Bang: Movement Theory + the Black Dancing Body, presents a comprehensive history of how Black bodies have contributed to dance. 

Cooper sees the project as a way to “open doors for other cultures to understand us more” and a chance “to use the dancing body as an instrument” capable of “putting a mirror up to our world to say we’re more alike than we’re different.” 

There is no dialogue but a straightforward narrative. Viewers witness evolution through movement. Tap dancers get low before majorettes wrap their arms around themselves dramatically. In one scene, flappers thrust their pearl necklaces like little girls on your block might thrust around their hula hoops. In another, a dancer morphs from an ancient African king into a classic B-Boy. Obscured connections between the eighties pop-locking and slightly offensive Bangles songs sharpen with each frame. 

Her film is being projected alongside the Chicago River Walk through September as part of the Art on The Mart program. Boat captains stopped to admire the artistry leaping off of the 2.5-acre river façade at the July premiere. Lights from the dazzling projection flooded the river as passengers pointed out the presentation to one another. The familiar movements echo scenes from basement parties, speakeasies, and community stages. 

Cooper’s proposal for the film was initially rejected because of concerns regarding the ambitious scope of the project. That did not deter her or Art on The Mart Executive Director Cynthia Noble, who encouraged her to reapply and championed the project. 

“We know that phrase no means not right now,” said Cooper. 

“I’m really unfazed by adversity. I mean, being Black is adversity. So you just really have to let things roll off your back and realize it’s all about timing. It’s all about alignment.” 

The Big Bang: Movement Theory + the Black Dancing Body is a product of the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project, an initiative launched in 2019 after a study found that only nine percent of funding available in the city was dispersed to “communities of color.” 

Many artists in what Cooper calls the “Black tradition in American dance” face the challenge of having to translate their culture. “People don’t understand the technique and the vocabulary,” she said. 

Cooper believes this tradition should be celebrated all year round with the same zeal that magically erupts across the country each February. “My history is not isolated to 28 days,” she added.  

Traditions like Chicago footwork, a method that has migrated to Baltimore and New Jersey, are integrated into The Big Bang: Movement Theory + the Black Dancing Body. At the launch of the film, two footworkers chatted among themselves, awaiting their closeup.

“We are cross-pollinating all of these conversations so that we make the city a better place,” said Cooper. “Part of our work is to open the doors and to open up the conversations.” 

A Chicago native, Cooper was a “theater baby” who grew up in the city’s creative community and is thrilled to flaunt its virtues on a national stage. “It is rich. It’s vibrant. And don’t let it be overshadowed by some of the negative media that we’re seeing throughout the world,” she said. “There’s a beautiful city here.” 

Cooper left the city to pursue her dance dreams as a young college student. “I graduated from Howard University, and that’s the first HBCU to have a dance major,” she said. Her career took her to Japan, Zimbabwe, Cuba, and other places where she connected with people through dance. 

“Leaving Chicago as a south side girl, as a dancer going to Howard University, it just really dismantled my idea of how I thought about myself in the world.” 

Young dancers featured in the film are having a similar awakening at home. Makyla Bates, 23, a Hiplet ballerina, expressed excitement about the practice being included in the film. 

“Chicago’s dancing goes way back to Soul Train, and it is the foundation of a lot of soul dancing,” Bates told ESSENCE after a rehearsal.  She and her fellow dancers Alexandria Franklin, and Nia Towe move fluidly in the mirrored studio wearing brown toe shoes that complimented their complexion. 

“Even footworking comes from Chicago, and Chicago creates a lot of trends in dance that spread around the world.” 

The film features performances from ten local dance companies, including The Chicago Multicultural Dance Center & Hiplet Ballerinas. Deeply Rooted Dance Theater; The Era Footwork Collective; Forward Momentum Chicago; Joel Hall Dancers & Center; MADD. Rhythms; Move Me Soul; Muntu Dance Theatre; NAJWA Dance Corps; and Praize Productions 

Previous installations of Art on The Mart have featured work from artists Derrick Adams, Brandon K. Calhoun, and ESSENCE cover artist Bisa Butler. 

Cooper considers technology “the next phase of performing arts.” Art on theMART is the largest permanent digital art projection in the world, and she hopes her work being projected there will heighten interest in the Black tradition of American dance. 

“I want it to be a moment, like a paradigm shift outside, to pull them out of the vortex of the moment that they’re in,” she said. 

Hiplet founder ​​Homer Hans Bryant is excited about where technology can take dance. “The possibility that future dancers are afforded by this current technology is amazing. If we had it back in the day, we would be further along,” he told ESSENCE. 

Projects like Art on The Mart allow dance to transcend “this visceral, fleeting moment where if you are not sitting in a theater and you bought a ticket, then nobody gets to see what you do.” They surprise the viewer and increase their access to another perspective. 

“Technology gives us an opportunity to reach broader audiences but also expand our palette as artists,” said Cooper as Noble nodded at her side. 

Anyone from any community can follow the story told in the graceful leaps and spirited shimmies projected on the building. Artists can also apply without huge restrictions. 

Cooper was inspired to create the project in the pandemic after the arts community was decimated by production closures. She turned to collaborators, including editors and animators, to help her execute her vision. Through artificial intelligence, she was able to take her audience through the flapper era and ancient Egypt. 

“It’s just the basic rule that you are as good as those that you collaborate with,” she said. “There’s no way I could have done that. There’s no way I could have known that technology was moving in that direction.” 

She has hope that dance will continue bringing cultures together. 

“Before people can talk, they dance. Before they can walk, they dance,” said Cooper. “I really like to look at dance as the universal language that we all share.” 

Learn more about Art on The Mart here. Learn more about the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project here.


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