Dance WiRe (Writers in Residence)

Crafting Tension and Attention

Dana Michel's Yellow Towel By Robert Kingsbury
  • Dana Michel in Yellow Towel / Photo by Maxyme G. Delisle
  • Dana Michel in Yellow Towel / Photo by Ian Douglas

Montreal dance artist Dana Michel’s celebrated work Yellow Towel had its Toronto debut as part of Dancemakers Minifest this June, after extensive touring in Europe and the United States.

Yellow Towel is an intimate yet detached work wherein Michel tries on black culture stereotypes while attempting to be her authentic self in front of an audience. Having given herself a sort of impossible task, in order to cope with it she employs both deep listening and a uniquely personal vocabulary of odd developmental movements, born of well-researched state-work. Michel explores blackness as an understudy to her own subjectivity, viscerally embodying character tropes through unpredictably disjointed postural movements, obscured speech, song and interactions with objects and materials.

Whether intentionally or not, her work confounds the oft-elitist Eurocentric context of contemporary performance. As Michel’s private soliloquy plays out, an immensely weighted yet invisible counterpart looms in the air, accompanying it in silence. The contents of this shared abstraction, for the audience, are everything that the work is not. Since neither Michel nor the structure of Yellow Towel indicate how to process the experience of observing racial stereotypes in a dance performance, there remains the ghost of a sort of meaning-mediator felt as missing from the event. Each audience member ultimately steps in to fill this role in their own way, creating the larger context of a cross-referenced consciousness filtering through the house. In staving off any resolution to this convoluted setup, Michel sides with innocence and a certain kind of idle generosity.

The set within the curtains is all white, looking like the inside of a giant paper box. Objects and props awaiting to be revealed sit covered in white sheets, reminiscent of an unused or abandoned living room. From the shadows of the black box theatre that surround this installed white diorama, Michel’s full black tracksuit interrupts the space, peeking around the side of the downstage curtain, her hoodie covering the rim of a black baseball cap. The contrast plays with my eyes, flattening and connecting the surrounding dark with the shape of Michel’s cloaked body, as it becomes increasingly defined by slowly entering the white frame of the scene.

A rectangular object tucked into the back of her outfit adds to the distortion of Michel’s often-concave spine and displaced limbs. Over the next seven minutes, she slowly twitches and cajoles her way toward an inflated toilet and a carafe of milk on the other side of the stage. Along the way she muses in the accented voice of an older man, speaking in poetic spurts about the creation of house music and the acceptance of persons of color “(but that don’t make no difference) in our house.” Along with the words comes the nervous rhythmic counterpoint of Michel’s body expressing another story.

To a Toronto audience at the Winchester Street Theatre this piece might resemble a form of experimental theatre, but it transcends that mode through its rigorous dedication to the dynamics that play out between bodies, objects and expectations. Much of the dance of Yellow Towel, in terms of attention and tension, also happens with and among the viewers. During quiet sections, Michel simply sits with the interplay transpiring in the room. The situation she sets up, by avoiding facing out, leads to considerations about how others in the room are dealing with the performance inside themselves.  A more social context between group and individual is engaged, layered with the intimate dynamic established through Michel’s introversion. As she shifts virtuosically through states suggesting dependency, disability and marginalization, our potential for empathy, whether embodied or performative, collides with that of critique.

Questions arise around the value of time spent, by both performer and individual audience members. As Michel sits at a table on a stool whose legs are wrapped with fabric in the same yellow shade as her tights, she slowly sips from a bowl. I catch a dance presenter in the audience shaking her head and assume it’s as if to convey disapproval or boredom. However, it’s clear that Michel’s timings and rhythms are masterfully crafted into the score of the work, allowing for a concentrated liveness as she amplifies tension through both action and inaction.

Had Yellow Towel cathartically moved on to the next thing each time Michel sensed an audience member becoming uncomfortable, the work’s attempt at a political relationality would have been stunted by the expectations and values still governing most performance works programmed for large scale venues. Instead, she uses anticipation and settling, in contrast with bodily reflexes and lived histories. It feels as if Michel waits for the very breaking point of attention, a challenging task for a performer in front of a full house. In this scenario her reality as a person of color becomes more potent and takes on a different value by virtue of being so outnumbered by the predominantly white audience and artists encountered in experimental dance. Strangely, that audience may be divided into those more familiar or receptive to durational work and those who have trouble seeing beyond their expectations.

Yellow Towel asks its audiences to consider and challenge what constitutes the professionalism of the dancer-performer within historically white ‘artistic’ contexts. By choreographically scoring herself in and out of generalized expectations and interpretations, Michel resists quietly and carefully, not only for the freedom to find her own ambiguity of meaning within the act of dance, but for a complex sense of livelihood itself that refuses to be overlooked. She invites audiences to join in the already present complexities surrounding race and performativity: the making, living and interpretation of contemporary dance by people of color in a colonial context.

Many of Yellow Towel’s regressive scenes are outright joyous, imbuing the “Winch” with an uncanny humour and lightness that burst through the maelstrom of its tensely dramatic and storied walls. Functioning both in mode and moment, the work weaves cathartic tapestries through its combination of somatic and conceptual dance. It offers a uniquely shared yet solitarily reflective experience, to be taken in on many levels and realized over time.

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