The alchemic, all-encompassing choreography of Dana Michel.
BY: MARY TRAMDACK
PHOTO BY: ALEXI HOBBS
In the middle of a stage, white plastic lawn chairs and crumpled bedsheets lie in a heap. Scattered ice cubes and furniture dollies turn the stage’s glossy surface into an obstacle course. Stalking through the chaos, Dana Michel mutters into a microphone that turns her voice high and goofy. She’s wearing a gigantic red cowboy hat, and she wants you to leave your expectations at the door.
This is Cutlass Spring, a performance by the Montreal-based dancer and choreographer, which debuted in early 2019 and has been touring since. It’s an exploration of her sexual identity and an imagined alternate life as a sexologist, expressed through movements and stage set-ups that borrow equally from dance, hip-hop, sculpture, comedy and whatever other disciplines she needs to call upon. In the process, she’s actively expanding our understanding of what dance is and can be.
For a pan-artistic magpie like Michel, choreography is how she gets to be all the different things she wants to be. Michel discovered dance through the 1990s’ preferred form of sensory overload: rave culture. As a student and competitive track-and-field athlete finishing her bachelor of commerce degree in Ottawa, she made increasingly frequent weekend trips to raves in Montreal. She describes the experiences as “stabs at wildness”—an antidote to all the structure and discipline in her life. Before long, a few dance classes turned into a degree in contemporary dance from Concordia University, and Michel realized she could not imagine not dancing. She says: “I got my feet wet and thought, ‘Maybe I can go a little deeper.’ Now I’m in the deep end. Now I’m underwater.”
Although it’s been the better part of a decade since performing became her full-time job, Michel maintains an outsider sensibility. “I feel like I make art from the point of view of a casual bastard on the street,” she says with a laugh. With interests as varied as hers, she developed an omnivorous approach to her choreography. “Performative alchemy” is Michel’s term for it—a bubbling beaker of ideas, references and personal preoccupations that she transforms through movement. Improvisation is a key ingredient. “Intuitively, I’ll think, ‘I need to wear these boots, use this music and walk like this’ and then in the moment of performing see what arrives from that. I’ll make a very elaborate map but allow myself a lot of freedom in how I move from place to place. For me, it’s like making a potion that can change all the time and create different outcomes.”
Philip Szporer, dance critic, writer, filmmaker and recipient of a Pew Fellowship for the National Dance/Media Project at the University of California (Los Angeles), says that what Michel’s performances ultimately offer the viewer is a chance for sincere intimacy. “We’re living in a time when we’re being bombarded with images and ideas coming at us in so many different ways. Work like this demands that we just slow down a little bit and engage with what is in front of us,” he says. “I think that’s why she’s made an impact and developed a following. There is something fundamentally human about what she does that people connect to.”
In 2017, Michel became the first Canadian to be awarded the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale—the festival’s top prize for dance— for her solo work Yellow Towel. The title is a reference to a towel she used to drape over her head as a child while pretending to have the blonde hair of her white classmates. It grew into an experimental meditation on identity, with Michel using metaphorically charged props, sound effects and character tropes to deconstruct racial stereotypes to the point of absurdity.
Michel mentions the physicality and attention to detail of stand-up comedians like Dave Chappelle but mainly appreciates that comedy allows us to discuss difficult subjects. Comedy is “a way to invite all of the things into the room. If you slather a little comedic butter on top to help it slide down, you can talk about serious things and people actually hear them without getting defensive or shutting down completely.” But for some, the seriousness of her subject matter outweighs the humour of her delivery. “It’s become kind of a heated debate: Are we allowed to laugh at Dana’s work or not?”
For Michel, any kind of reaction is a valid one. So when she blows a long, flat note on a trumpet or waddles across the stage in a pair of silk boxer shorts pulled up to her rib cage, yes, we are allowed to laugh. But if you don’t crack a smile, that’s fine too. Her philosophy is based on her own requirements as an audience member. “I want freedom. I don’t want anyone to tell me what I should be thinking, looking at or taking away,” she says. “So I like to do that for other people. I find it way more interesting and ripe with potential if people can do with this art object what they need to do.”
Michel advises her audience to go in without preconceptions. “Don’t shy away from feeling weird. Relax into not understanding,” she says. And, if you can, tell her what you think—the relentlessly curious Michel would love to know. “I learn so much through what other people see. Now it’s a juicy dialogue.” She smiles. “It’s always a mysterious negotiation that keeps me interested.”