Photo by Maxyme G. Delisle
Essay by Sara Tilley
Dana Michel is coming to St. John’s with her dance solo, Yellow Towel, on October 4th, as part of the Festival of New Dance. The towel in question refers to Michel’s childhood attempts at faking blond hair with a beach towel in an effort to be white. This towel, which doesn’t literally appear onstage, nonetheless sets the tone for the choreography, and, if you will pardon the pun, aptly absorbs it. Michel explores black identity from the inside, sometimes in a blatant way, such as her repeated cry of ‘Silky, silky silky’ as she skates her ‘flesh’-toned stockings across the floor, or when she admits ‘My hair is not white hair.’ These more overt moments are held within an intricate web of repetitive, often ungainly movement, lengths of suspended time, intense interactions with objects, and guttural sounds which gradually become words which sometimes form whole thoughts. I found the overall effect to be mesmerizing.
Watching this piece feels, at times, like observing a person behind glass. Michel makes a conscious choice to keep the gaze and energy flowing inward, which informs everything. Abstracted sequences are broken with flashes of breathtakingly real human emotion. Michel is a master of rhythm, working with the attention span past its comfortable limit to see what might be found in the murky space beyond. These durational investigations let us sink deep into energy of the marginalized personality being evoked — at times a teenager, a bipolar person, an amputee, an artist, a small child, a drunk.
Michel is a master of rhythm, working with the attention span past its comfortable limit to see what might be found in the murky space beyond.
At times, it is as though she is relearning how the body works. Deformity and awkwardness dominate the body vocabulary, so that it comes as a shock when Michel swiftly pops out into a neutral walk before sliding back into a state of harnessed madness, of child-energy, or of ecstatic energetic release. When she starts to drink a bottle of milk, it makes a beautiful tableau against the white stage, easily appreciated for aesthetics. The drinking action is mundane, then becomes uncomfortable, then eventually it becomes funny, before the rhythm comes to a natural end. Michel keeps going long past that point, teasing the moment out until the audience squirms in their seats. She lies prostrate with the milk still pouring into her mouth, and suddenly we are witnessing the too-private, the too-gross, the suddenly-sad, the latently violent. Or, that’s how it hit me, personally. With a piece as intensely interior as Yellow Towel, each audience member will find their own resonances.
It is densely layered and full of gorgeous, funny and sometimes unsettling moments that will stay with you.
Michel draws inspiration from working with physical objects, which is very clear in this choreography. Each object in the white space takes on a symbolic and emotional weight. When Michel performs a duet with a stool clad in women’s tights, it operates on a particular part of us, the same part that reads poetry and has elaborate dreams at night. It makes sense, but not logical sense, evoking a complex mixture of emotions that a stool wearing tights shouldn’t really evoke. Yellow Towel sits on the edge of understanding and refuses to come any closer. While it is a dance piece, because Dana Michel says it’s a dance piece, the work also crosses over into spoken word, performance art and theatre. It is densely layered and full of gorgeous, funny and sometimes unsettling moments that will stay with you. As Michel said in an interview for Art Practical about her first experience of watching contemporary dance: “I didn’t know what I was looking at or what was going on, but I loved this experience of sitting by myself in this theater not knowing what the fuck was going on. It was a wonderful feeling.”
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