Arts

Dancer Dana Michel: 'People will see your minority status in your work'

The bold move of cutting off her hair marks an important transition in Dana Michel's career, coming two years after the debut of her critically-acclaimed piece Yellow Towel, which addressed racial stereotypes in the black community. The Dance Current listed it as one of the top 10 performances of 2013, and Michel has since toured Europe many times over, winning an award at the prestigious Impulstanz festival in Vienna, Austria.

Acclaimed dancer-choreographer spins her Yellow Towel into a new show, Mercurial George

Montreal-based dancer-choreographer Dana Michel in Mercurial George, her new performance at Montreal's Festival Trans-Ameriques. (Photo: Camille McOuat)

Montreal-based dancer-choreographer Dana Michel cut her hair. All of it.

What might be a routine cut for some is loaded with meaning for the artist, who felt her dreadlocks were crucial to contributing increased representation of dancers of colour.

"We don't see any locks in contemporary dance," she says while chatting on Skype.  "First of all, how many black faces do you see in contemporary dance, much less with some full head of hair or locks?"

The bold move marks an important transition in her career, coming two years after the debut of her critically-acclaimed piece Yellow Towel, which addressed racial stereotypes in the black community. The Dance Current listed it as one of the top 10 performances of 2013, and Michel has since toured Europe many times over, winning an award at the prestigious Impulstanz festival in Vienna, Austria. Michel also became one of the first dancers-in-residence at Toronto's Dancemakers company.

Michel and I met many years ago as neighbours in Orleans, a predominantly white French suburb of Ottawa. She and I were among the handful of black people in the neighbourhood. Years later, she would choreograph a piece for my band's music video, and coach me in movement for live performance, as part of an Ontario Arts Council-funded residency in Montreal. In all my time knowing her, I felt that she understood me, but I didn't know why. It was only recently that I realized our quiet-but-strong bond came from an unspoken, shared awareness of our struggle to answer questions about our cultural identities as second-generation Caribbean-Canadians — some of the same questions that are threaded throughout Yellow Towel.

Dana Michel in Mercurial George. (Photo: Camille McOuat)

Instead of answering Michel's questions, the process of making and presenting Yellow Towel created more of them. Wanting to "wade in the pool a bit longer," Michel created another piece, Mercurial George, taking her personal investigation into ideas of cultural identity to deeper places.

Your new piece, Mercurial George, explores concepts similar to those of Yellow Towel. Is it an extension of Yellow Towel, or a response?

I would say it's like an extension. [Yellow Towel] kicked up some unexpected dust, and I'm just standing in the dirt cloud.

What does that mean in practice? Did Yellow Towel reveal aspects of yourself you wanted to explore in another piece?

It awoke this looking-at-blackness thing, that I had never really done — or had avoided, or thought about doing. Somehow it was never important, being raised to know about my history or to know about being black, or to be proud of being black.

In fact, it's like the opposite. I think it's like this in a lot of Caribbean islands, you know? You kind of, somehow, you want to be as not-black as you can, in St. Lucia, [where my parents are from].

You kind of wanna pass culturally. I hate the word pass, but this is especially the case in Orleans. What you mentioned is from the perception of non-blacks — how does the general black community's perception of blackness impact you?

This is where shit gets crazy. I'm still lost. I'm already lost in thoughts of not 'passing' anywhere. [Sometimes I'm told] "You're not really black" [by other black people].

Dana Michel, before cutting her hair off, in her new show Mercurial George. (Photo: Sammy Rawal)

It's not as though I have answers, but I have more info. I'm just really pretty busy allowing myself to look and say things for the first time. That's already big.

What's your own idea of blackness? When you're on stage, what's the idea of blackness that you're communicating?

[Laughs] That's just it — I don't know. With Yellow Towel, it's a combo of things. I know a lot of things happen subconsciously. They're not really obvious.

Things like, I wear this black hoodie, the black jogging suit [in the piece]. The first time that I did some kind of segment of the piece and I wore this black jogging suit, and the first critique that was written was, like, "Oh, she's referencing Trayvon Martin," because [he had been shot and killed] the week before I did the piece. 

I didn't know who Trayvon Martin was! I had to look it up. I had worn the jogging suit because I was three months pregnant and I was feeling super, super shy, and just felt as though I needed to hide my body.

But it's also how I work. There's this holistic marrying of all the things i'm thinking about and doing that come about quite naturally.

Hearing that reaction to your jogging outfit, do you believe society overthinks race?

I think [this] is always happening. It's another layer of what brought me to making Yellow Towel. I would be making work and I would know that I was going out of my way to not do 'black things' in my work.

Dana Michel in her new show Mercurial George (Photo: Sammy Rawal)

Even though I was super interested in taking an African dance class, I didn't want to take it because I didn't want to give people the ammunition to say... I didn't want to be pigeon-holed. I didn't want to be put in this obvious box.

So, I denied myself [the opportunity to look] at these things I wanted to look at, just so that people wouldn't make these obvious blanket statements and stereotypes. But I found that it was happening anyway. No matter what I did. Every piece that I did was 'urban' or 'West African.'

You mean the press identified your pieces as "urban" or "West African"?

Always...always. So, that's when, with Yellow Towel, I was like, "Fuck it." That's all the majority of people will see no matter what you do. People will see your minority status in your work. So, you're forced to do it.

So, I [thought] I'm just gonna give myself some breathing room; I'm gonna do the thing that people think I'm doing anyway; I'm gonna see what that feels like to me, what the hell that means to me.

[In terms of] any kind of touching upon cultural reference or memory, it's as though I've just said, "Yes." I'm sitting around with a bunch of objects, sounds, memories that touch upon me as Dana — me as black Dana, me as a female Dana — and I'm just sitting with them.

I'm a lot more relaxed. With Yellow Towel, I was in a very febrile state, and I used that vocabulary to inform the movement. [But] I feel like I've accepted certain parts of myself. I've accepted my interests. So, I'm not as nervous, and that energy translates in how I deal with my body.

Dana Michel: Mercurial George. Festival Trans-Ameriques, Theatre La Chapelle, 3700 rue Saint-Dominique, Montreal. Thu, June 2-Sun, June 5. $25-$30. Thu-Fri 9pm; Sat-Sun 4pm.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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