By Karoun Chahinian
Many people are lucky to have one passion that drives them further every day. Rodney Diverlus, a Ryerson dance graduate and a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Toronto chapter, is blessed to have two passions that define him: dance and activism.
Diverlus was told at a young age that he had a “personality for the stage,” but growing up in an immigrant and traditional household, he was taught to go for a more realistic career route.
“I ended up choosing dance in the long run, but I still had that voice in the back of my head that said it wasn’t the most viable option,” said Diverlus. “But there was always a part of me that knew that I wanted to make a life and a career out of this as an artist.”
He moved to Toronto from Hamilton in 2008 after being accepted into Ryerson’s dance program, which he admired for its “deep technical focus.”
During his time there, he developed a close relationship with dance performance professor Vicki St. Denys, who is now the director of the program.
“The one thing that struck me about Rodney is his passion and his need to always say something with his dancing and choreography,” said St. Denys. “That was something that I noticed the very first moment I laid eyes on Rodney and that certainly never stopped.”
Along with realizing his dream of making a living out of dance, Diverlus also discovered his love for activism during his time in university through community outreach work in the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU). During the drop the fees campaign in 2008, Diverlus marshalled a rally and became “really heated into the issues.”
Diverlus attended the Fall general RSU meeting in 2009, which was when the VP Equity position was created. He was also the Equity Commissioner at the Board of Directors at the time, which made him aware of campus issues, that he said he could only fix by running for the position himself.
“I saw that these issues needed to be addressed at this level, so I ran as VP equity in order to do that,” said Diverlus. “I ended up having a really good year and I started so many projects like Queering Black History Month, Global Issues Awareness Week that we just started that made me want to have another year to continue them.”
Diverlus then re-ran for the position in 2011, and eventually became the RSU president in 2012.
“When I ran for president, my goal was to help support the students union to continue with activism and to continue being a force on campus,” said Diverlus.
Outside of Ryerson, he was involved in community work in Toronto, specifically the Black Lives Matter Toronto chapter.
While waiting for the verdict from the murder case of Michael Brown versus police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson in 2014, Diverlus received a call from his close friend Sandy Hudson who wanted to take action and show support.
“There was a desire to do international actions of solidarity for Ferguson, so people from all around the world were asked to be ready for a 24-hour act of solidarity through a protest if the decision is what we expected it to be,” said Diverlus.
By creating a Facebook page advertising the solidarity protest at the U.S. Consulate, word quickly spread and 4,000 Torontonians came out the next day.
“From then on, we knew that this couldn’t stop there because of the amount of momentum that had gone into that protest,” said Diverlus. Black Lives Matter started off as a hashtag and grew into a conversation. We continued to meet and do these actions and events, and while we were doing it in Toronto, people were simultaneously doing it in dozens of other cities internationally as well.”
Diverlus ended up stretching his degree over six years due to investing so much time in activism and student politics. Once he graduated in 2014, he fulfilled his dream of working in one of the largest and oldest dance organizations in the country, Decidedly Jazz Danceworks (DJD). He moved to Calgary in September 2014 after signing on to his first dance contract where he toured and performed with the company.
While Diverlus said working in a company is great for gaining connections and employment security, he wanted to further explore his options as an independent black artist, which was how he got involved in Dance Immersion in Fall 2015, an organization that aims to support dancers that are part of the African diaspora.
“Launching my own independent voice was something that was foreign to me,” said Diverlus. “So when I was contacted last summer for Dance Immersion by their curator and she extended an invitation for me to come and create a piece as part of this ‘Footsteps Across Canada’ showcase, I gladly accepted.”
Footsteps Across Canada is a dance showcase that highlights the original works of six acclaimed African-Canadian choreographers. Diverlus was one of the choreographers and presented his piece from Feb. 26 to 27 at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre.
“The piece is about conversations that go awry. They’re a reflection of the power of language and the ways that language can be misconstrued,” said Diverlus. “It’s very personal, but it also connects with the work that I do in the community as well, for example my work with Black Lives Matter Toronto when words had been used as tools of violence against black communities.”
This deep use of dance to communicate social issues is not a foreign concept for Diverlus, who found a way to pair his two passions into one, resulting in what he likes to refer to as “artivism.”
“To be able to say that I professionally work in dance and activism is something that I’ve always wanted to say that I could do,” said Diverlus “What I love about dance is that you can’t lie. It’s also a crucial part of community work and is a crucial part of black liberation because movement is ingrained in all of us. We are able to surpass the need to be politically correct, to surpass the need to appease people’s guilt. It’s a way of surpassing a lot of different filters that we have put on each other as a society to talk about things.”
Diverlus’ next self-choreographed project is a two-year process and deals with the themes of anti-black racism and police brutality.
“It’s always been interesting to watch him unite these two worlds and find places and ways for these two worlds to intersect,” said St. Denys. “And I think he’s done a great job of that.”