A monthly series profiling cutting-edge creators of all stripes with ties to Montreal.
"I walked into this kitchen and was like, I need this apartment! There was just something about all this overwhelmingly sexy, Scandinavian, seventies wood." Acclaimed Montreal performer Dana Michel – you know, the one who took home the Biennale’s Silver Lion award for innovation in dance last year – is giving me a grand tour of her beloved, longstanding Centre-Sud apartment. And we’re having a moment taking in her astonishingly roomy kitchen cupboards. In life as in art, Michel is playful, expressive and guided by intuition. Our stopover in each room is thus interspersed with storytelling tangents that speak to the importance of mementos and objects she’s amassed over the years – a track and field baton here, a Boyz II Men single tape there, her Aunt Unita’s fruit bowl and a photograph of a certain Tata René standing commandingly at the mic.
Michel, who recently joined Benoît Lachambre’s Par B.L.eux company as an associate artist, reasons that by casting those objects of greatest sentimental value as supporting players in her performances, she’s found a sly way to avoid relegating them to the trash heap. "I tap into the history of the object," she tells me, pausing to glance at the Tata René photograph leaning against the kitchen table. "I remets ça en valeur and give it a nice way of being eternal, somehow. Whether it’s my childhood hairbrush or an attachment from my parents’ vacuum cleaner."
If you’ve come across Dana Michel’s frenetic, rhythmic and improvisational early-career work, chances are you’re familiar with the talking points: born in Ottawa, played touch football, studied commerce, and then, after raving her way to an epiphany, and at the relatively old (in movement years) age of 25, took up contemporary dance at Concordia. In 2013, a new chapter in the Book of Michel was written when the FTA premiered her 75-minute solo Yellow Towel, whose very title referenced the piece of cloth she’d wrap around her head as a young girl to pretend she sported long, golden locks. Ostensibly about hair, the piece is more of an astute, alternately funny and tragic exploration of race, identity, memory and beauty. By tampering with stereotypical imagery culled from Black culture (whether it’s an Afro or a trumpet), which is then blurred and repurposed through movement, speech and setting, Michel was finally giving herself permission to talk about something she’d spent her entire career avoiding: race.
Her follow-up, 2016’s Mercurial George, continued to pull back the veil on the fraught relationship between the black body and the white gaze, among other things, in another highly intimate, frequently jolty, disturbingly complex bravura performance. Michel has spent recent years collecting accolades the world over for her taboo-busting work, and we caught up with the performer as she was Iceland-bound and preparing to give an academic workshop. Artist interviews don’t always have such conspicuous themes, but this one kept coming back to Michel’s very evocative and empowering notion of holding the lid down on the steam pot. That is, until one decides to lift that proverbial lid for good.
I was reading over an old bio of yours, where you describe being most interested in addressing gender coding and sexual duality through your work. Would you say that’s still the case?
Oh yeah, they’re still there. It’s always changing, but at the same time my preoccupations remain the same. Shortly after writing that artistic statement, I remember giving an interview where I said, 'oh yeah, I did those pieces, had certain conversations, and it’s all good! Gender, bam! Chapter closed.' Looking back, that was so cute and naïve, right? We go through different stages in our learning, but these things are always there. Perhaps I once made pieces where those were more of a direct focus, but they’re constantly in the work.
Something you weren’t overtly addressing when we met 8 years ago was your Black identity, which in recent pieces has become a central focus. You’ve said that others constantly bringing it up ultimately prompted you to look inward. Can you take me back to that moment?
At some point, I just decided I’d make some 'Black work,' because everybody was writing about my work in a certain way. My Blackness was constantly coming up in subtle and not-subtle ways, so I didn’t have the luxury of just making work. It was always going to be 'Black' work. So what would it feel like to own that rather than have it be thrust on me? What would it feel like to be the instigator? That’s a big part of the initial thinking for Yellow Towel.
Do you get the impression you’ve now pried open a Pandora’s Box and that you’re still just scratching the surface of all these questions?
For sure. I’m still finding the language to describe the realizations I’ve made and it’s so complicated. It didn’t just liberate me or open up a Pandora’s Box: I realized it would change my perspectives on everything. You can’t hold the lid down on the pan of boiling water forever. Water wants to steam out! When you remove that lid and see all the possibilities, evolution can really begin. Some of that is really scary and overwhelming and I’m not quite sure what to do with it all, but thank God I did it instead of sticking my head in the sand for the rest of my life.
What is it like to suddenly find yourself performing in places where antennas immediately go up and your work takes on greater resonance in the wake of bubbling tensions? I’m thinking, for instance, of finding yourself in the U.S. as Black Lives Matter was gaining mainstream traction and being asked to comment on tragedies like Trayvon Martin.
At first, it was really scary, especially with the Black community, because I felt so ignorant and at times a bit unsure. Like, what am I doing? Am I allowed to be saying the things I’ve chosen? My brain was oozing out of my ear a little bit, and I felt really unsure. I mean, I create performance pieces, not the nuclear bomb, but in these contexts… It becomes very sensitive.
That being said, in presenting Yellow Towel, you had been very forthright that you hadn’t actively participated in conversations about race in the past.
And that’s specifically why I was making that work. I had been turning a blind eye to it for so long – all these weird, shameful things. I don’t want to exaggerate: I wasn’t ashamed of being a Black person. But there are things you deal with growing up as a minority. There’s just shit you learn to do to protect yourself, depending on where you’re brought up. For me, blending in was the thing. I was one of the very few people who looked like me, so you didn’t want to stick out. You didn’t want to have any opportunities taken away from you. You realize – okay, this is something that could potentially hold me back, so I’m going to pretend it’s not there so they don’t look at it either and we all don’t see it! But when I started making dance pieces, that "neutrality" was just gone. So I decided to embrace that and delve into it, but then I suddenly found myself a poster girl for Blackness, in a room full of Black people looking at me like: 'hey there, so… what are you doing?' That was extremely scary, and it still is. But it has helped me grow.
On another note, I love that in the context of these pieces, you’re not directly looking out into the audience or engaging with eyeballs. You give patrons the freedom to respond to the material as they see fit – even if that means falling asleep. Is that something you’ve always appreciated as a spectator?
Totally. What I appreciate the most is not having anyone shove my face into the pie, like 'see what I’m doing? Look, look! This is the point I’m making!' I appreciate being left copious amounts of space to let feelings, thoughts and images wash over me. I think this idea of making eye contact with a room full of strangers is rarely done in a way that makes me feel convinced or comfortable. I don’t know how to do that! It’s nuclear science. Often, I feel performers plaster on a shell to survive that moment. So my rudimentary approach is to not really look at people. I like having a voyeuristic gaze when I’m watching a performance, so it’s what I’m trying to offer as well: you don’t have to sign any kind of emotional contract with me. I feel like not looking up perhaps allows people to be a bit freer in how they behave in the room.
You talk a lot about the influence of the club on your practice, and the parallel seems particularly apt here: how sustaining glances on the dance floor might prevent you from getting lost in the music, just as artists on stage overly concerned about connecting with the crowd might not allow themselves to perform.
It also explains why in my pieces, I’m looking down a lot. In the club, people’s eyes are on the ground and focused. They’re working it out, and that doesn’t involve looking across the room, like 'hey! Do you see me working it out? Do you see my moves?' No! That reminds me of a performance by Rihanna [at the 2016 VMAs] where she did a medley of songs and dancehall mash-ups with tons of people on stage. I didn’t even see the whole thing; I just found a 3-minute snippet of it on YouTube. It’s single-handedly the best performance I’ve ever seen of her, because she’s not trying to do this choreographed, performing-my-sexiness, bad-girl thing. All of that is forgotten and every single performer on stage is just in the club, doing their thing. I find that fascinating.
People who know you are well aware of your dual talents as a jokester and a wordsmith. So it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to them that you now incorporate speech into pieces. But how did you warm up to the idea?
Again, this goes back to holding the lid down on the steam pot. I was always adamant about questioning what the heck people were doing talking in their performances. What, your dance moves aren’t enough? Especially when I started seeing a trend in contemporary dance to explain what you’re doing, I thought: what is this cop out? Then, a friend sent me videos of Ivo Dimchev, who sings and talks during his performances, and I was completely blown away. He was the first talking movement artist who didn’t piss me off, and soon after that I found out I’d be taking a workshop with him.
During his workshop, I was responding to his exercise prompts when he just straight up asked me why I wasn’t using my voice. I had never talked in my work, so I didn’t think there was anything to explain. He just said, 'yeah yeah yeah, so you’re gonna open your mouth tomorrow.' I really didn’t want to! But it busted out of me out of frustration eventually, and it immediately made sense. So naively, so quickly, I realized I should be doing this all kinds. I mean, I’m fucking Dana Michel, I make jokes! So that started a process of connecting dots in ways I hadn’t expected. Using the body and the voice at the same time quickly reminded me of physical comedy, and my biggest influences in life are comedians. So I gave myself permission to infuse more comedy into my work.
This week, you’re off to Reykjavik to teach workshops at a performing arts school. Are you increasingly spending time in academic environments?
Not really, and I’ve actually long had hesitations around teaching. I’ve spent years trying to untangle the mystery of why it scares me so much. The last time I did something on this scale was when I taught in Virginia for two weeks, in a contemporary dance master’s program. Teaching in the traditional sense freaks me out because people are coming into the room with a certain amount of expectations, and there’s a kind of divulging of your secrets that happens. But the director of this program told me, "we just want you to do the things that you do." In thinking long and hard about it, I realized I needed to make teaching and workshop giving feel more like performance making. They’re not the same thing, and sometimes there’s no point in trying to squeeze a ball into a square, but I think they can be similar.
Lastly, what are you working on at the moment?
I’m making a new solo for myself. I can tell you it’s related to the steam pot. Like, 'oh, Jesus! I was repressing myself in that way, too?' So I’ll be taking the lid off another pan. It’ll be a sex piece. There, I said it! I’m making a sex piece.
Interview and photos by Michael-Oliver Harding