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Dana Michel: Body, queerness, and chaos

The artist shares about her self-discovery through performance

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Published: 16 Oct 2019


Cover image courtesy of the artist. 

The following article is extracted from an archival report of da:ns lab 2018, written from the perspectives of participants Chloe Chotrani and Chan Sze-Wei. It includes excerpts from the artists' lectures and Q&A sessions with the da:ns lab participants.

 

It’s kind of like a clarity potion—chaos.

Dana shifts from talking about making her slides, to why she is here, to suddenly standing from her seat to take a walk. Being around Dana, you will often notice, her sudden change of options, in real time, with frequent variations. She starts with, “I am going to figure it out, with you.” With a sense of humour, nervousness, and excitement. She shares her story.

Timeline

Age 0

Born and raised in the suburbs of Ottawa, Canada, with her ancestry from the Caribbean.

Ages 0-4

She calls this phase ‘Fortress of Alone’, where she enjoyed simply, being alone. With quite a gap between her siblings, she was often by herself, which she thoroughly enjoyed. Often times, making solo work, aside from the fact that it is economical, Dana finds being alone cozy.

Ages 4-11

Constant “outside looking in” sensation, a perpetual feeling of life as a constant dream, from which maybe one day she will wake up. Which reflects also, the way she works today, of this detachment and re-creation of selves and lives. Allowing herself to be the material that she can hold, and decide when to attach or detach.

On welcoming gender queer,

Growing up, she was known as a tomboy. Then, there was no term “queer”, there weren’t words we have today, as a tomboy. Today, in the past couple of years hearing the term gender queer has been really welcoming. Relating to this term, but also relating to the term: woman. “The outside world’s definition of women doesn’t seem to include me. The term gender queer, does.”

Timeline

Ages 13-17

She played sports, mostly touch football, until she started dancing. Helping Dana with confidence, not to feel like an outcast in high school.

Ages 18-23

Business school, studied marketing and resource management. “My parent did not leave islands for me to become an artist, that’s for damn sure.” There was no way that was going to happen.

Ages 23-35

Electronic dance music, Dana started raving, and when she moved to Montreal. Quickly realising, she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do. And, found a contemporary dance department, by mistake.

It is important for me to form intimate relationship(s) with the people I work with.

Timeline

Ages 25-29

Contemporary dance school, which was meant to be a dabble and meant to go back to what she was doing in marketing. Ended up working with a group of women, the first time she could deeply relate to a group of women. “It is important for me to form intimate relationship with the people I work with, I need to know what I am dealing with, I need to know what you look like when you cry… I don’t know.” At the same time, feeling a sense of limitation on what she could create.

Ages 30-32

Fresh, not bottled lemon.

On being an artist,

Working in art, live art, as always expanding. An increasing willingness and interest in making videos, thinking of photography, writing, more and more. “The reason why I am working in the arts, making art or calling myself an artist is because it seems like the simplest way to invest in the world.”

“At this point, if I am not engaged with the arts, I cannot see point of being alive would be. In the arts, I have a space to take a step back and potentially contribute through a thoughtful self.”

On soca music,

Music that Dana grew up with, from the Caribbean that started in the 70s. Soca revolves around small themes, not changing much… The rhythm is fast, often talking about partying, sexuality, and commonly using the same vocabulary. But, somehow, it is constantly changing, refreshing, and exciting. Yet, there are such basic principles. Somehow, limited means in production, makes it very expansive. Perhaps, also, relating to how Dana lives, not necessarily trying, but rather what happens naturally, and what feels best.

On being many things in performance,

Psychology? Herb-ology? Stand-up comedy? Poetry? Cinematography? Monk? Rock? By working in live performance art, it is the best way for one to be doing all of these things.

On not understanding,

Sometimes, I make choices I don’t understand in the moment. But, more often than not, they tend to make sense later on.

On her relationship to gender,

“I have a vulva and I have muscles and I can cry over a piece of garbage looking just so and I feel better in the men’s section and I cried once when my sister tried to put make up on me and I trust babies more than any other entities”

It raises questions, speaking of ‘woman’s work’, can be actually problematic.

Building a power fortress, babe boobs, and later, post-partum body. Starting from an impulse in the studio to simply, take off her top. “I can’t seem to make a performance without my breasts being free, I think this is interesting to talk about.” Which came about from questioning why men were allowed to be topless and women were not. Dana continued to express that being topless, this daring freedom, gave her clearer ways of communication, with multiple repercussions. Also, leading towards revealing more and more brown flesh.

On making art and making babies,

Dana’s first evening length work, and as she was making this piece, she became pregnant seven months in the piece. As she premiered, her son was five months old. Her breasts were full of milk, and a round belly full of stretch marks. In a small activist way, Dana started holding space for the visibility of post-partum bodies. This is another thing that we don’t see, often, in performance and in the world. “All of these issues we have with the body, stem from the fact that we don’t see them.”

“This moment in my life was really, wild.” Dana officially started working this piece when she was going through a paradigm shift at the age of 35, diving head first into a full-time artist career. In the midst of this, getting pregnant seeped and contributed to the work.

“It was a beautiful negotiation, making my first evening-length work, while becoming a mother.” Dana’s piece, experience, and story emphasised the importance of making space for Motherhood in art.

    Chan Sze-Wei: How do you make work after Yellow Towel? After all those circumstances that generated this important work? How do you make work after that?

    Dana Michel:I was quite certain, I wouldn’t. I felt that I had nothing else to say. In fact, even performing Yellow Towel, I didn’t really understand the circumstances. In general, I need a lot of time between processes, I can’t eat too fast, and I can’t make too fast. That was it, time and a lot of reflection… I’d like to stand up for other modes of being, making, and communicating.

    Melati Suryodarmo: What makes me interested in your work since we met in Berlin, and after your performance and documentation… Since I’ve been growing in the performance art scene, the scene is not necessarily in the museum or gallery, but also not in the frame of festival of theatre and dance. It is in the independent networking that is more grassroots and underground. I have a bit of hope, my vocabulary of understanding your work is trained by this environment. If I switch then, if I were more involved in (the) dance and theatre scene, how then would I see this? It becomes again a space that is intertwining, I wonder if our knowledge also intertwines.

    Anlin Loh: Just a quick response to what you (Melati) were asking earlier; How do you look at a work from your own practice? I wanted to throw in that my practice came in from theatre, and watching the lectures across the board, it widens the entire scope of possibilities quite a lot. Even in the different issues of economy, space, new modalities of working; that being in such a space these four days to absorb and to listen, especially in the workshops it actually reminds me of more classical workshop modalities, but from a very different angle, and the different responses to it. I felt that, the availability of such spaces, the third space, the infinite space, allows people to bring in something, to receive something. Especially, when you come from different backgrounds. I am already having ideas on how this work can inform my process.

    Melati Suryodarmo:It goes beyond dance, beyond the strictness of the institution. I love it when things merge, and there is chaos.

    Dana Michel: I recognise there are things I have in common with performance art, things in common with dance, things in common with visual art. This in-between-ness is really important. It feels like the most fertile place for me. I find it fascinating how close the forms art, yet how far away at the same time.

    Daniel Kok: Actually, a similar question came up for me. The word ‘hybrid’ was used many times. I am excited by the thought. What then is the way we articulate the socio-cultural function of an artist, of art? In Sonja’s case, it’s not art therapy, but there is a bit of that, it’s not social work, but there is a bit of that. There is also discussion about not wanting to keep it defined. I am wondering if we already have been in a post-genre situation for quite a while. What I want to then ask is—How do the institutions, platforms, ecology, economics, structures—How are they able to host what is happening? This kind of cross fertilisation and melting. It is exciting to work with artists that connect with different sectors of communities. But, the existing frameworks actually cannot host these kinds of practices.

    Dana Michel: It is the same as other questions we are asking. How do we create spaces for other gender definitions? It is always so much easier for things to be clean cut. How do we allow society to be more flexible? And, even messy. We have got to practice being messy, as a whole. This is what we actually need the most.

Reflections by Chan Sze-Wei

I really enjoyed Dana’s organic, quite anarchic approach to making and to association of ideas. But what I was most moved by was her integration of the personal into her art practice – particularly the choice to become a mother, and the changes that came about in her body and her life. Alongside Melati’s sharing of her own activism in bringing her baby to art school in Germany, this topic resonated deeply for many other participants as well.

I was thrilled when facilitator/organiser Daniel agreed to my request to have my own three-month old baby with me every afternoon of da:ns lab. I took this as an experiment with my desire to integrate motherhood and art practice. Instinctively I flinched every time baby might have been seen as disruptive to the focus of the workshops. Instead, there was so much warmth and enthusiasm from the facilitators, workshop leaders and other participants. Many offered to share in the caregiving (or baby-playing) to allow me to participate more fully in the workshops. Others shared about their own families. Several younger artists thanked me for bringing my baby along. I took it that his presence and the stories that he prompted gave many of us more courage to assert that motherhood need not be a barrier to being an artist.


Contributed by:

Chan Sze-Wei

Chan Sze-Wei (1980) blends conceptual, interactive, improvisatory and cross-cultural approaches for theatres, public spaces, video installation and film. Her work is intimate and personal, reaching for social issues, identity and gender. She has performed with contemporary dance and theatre productions in Asia and Europe and her work has been shown in Singapore, London, Kuala Lumpur, Solo, Taipei, Zagreb and Laos, as well as dance film festivals in the USA and Brazil. Her creative practice is grounded in a somatic approach focused on perception, sensation and the organic knowledge of the human body, its immediacy and its responses. She is also an advocate for the rights and sustainable careers of dancers in Singapore, and the development of artistic networks and exchange in Southeast Asia. She holds a Diploma in Dance from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and an M.A. in Contemporary Dance from London Contemporary Dance School.


Acknowledgement by:

Dana Michel

Dana Michel (b. Ottawa, Canada) is a choreographer and live artist based in Montreal. In 2005, she graduated from the BFA program in Contemporary Dance at Concordia University in her late 20s. Prior to this, she was a marketing executive, competitive runner and football player. Her first extended length solo performance piece, Yellow Towel, was featured on the “Top Five” and the “Top Ten” 2013 dance moments in the Voir newspaper (Montreal) and Dance Current Magazine (Canada) respectively. In 2014, she was awarded the newly created ImPulstanz Award (Vienna) in recognition for outstanding artistic accomplishments and was highlighted amongst notable female choreographers of the year by the New York Times. That same year concluded with Yellow Towel appearing on the Time Out New York Magazine “Top Ten Performances” list. Her most recent and critically-acclaimed solo, Mercurial George, was premiered at Festival TransAmériques (Montreal) in June 2016. Both pieces are currently on tour. In June 2017, Dana Michel was awarded the Silver Lion for Innovation in Dance by the Venice Biennale (Italy).


Download the full report for da:ns lab 2018 here

da:ns lab

da:ns lab is an annual platform for dance practitioners to reflect upon key issues surrounding their creative practice, as part of da:ns festival at Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay. The programme aims to engage dance practitioners in Singapore and the Southeast Asian region in artistic discourse, research, reflection and exchange.

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