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Dance WiRe (Writers in Residence)

To Turn Burden into Songs

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

Dear Dana,

On June 18, 2017, I watched you perform Yellow Towel.

I watched you stutter, grasp and fidget from out behind the cloak. The glimpse of your body covered in a black hoodie, black pants and white platform shoes silenced the audience conversations surrounding me. You used the silence as a sealant material, spreading it with a determined uncertainty as you began to stammer and pierce further into the space.

Your focus was not on the audience. The distortion in your voice mimicked the distortion in your body, the lump in your throat emulated the hunch in your back, your posture; you seemed to be carrying something. An object perhaps – something obscure and made unclear so that I could not see that this was a burden. Your movements took distance in waves as you alternated from the tips of your toes then onto flat feet, back to the summit of the toes and then to the floor. I wondered about this burden.

The first note I wrote in my book was: takes shoes off to play with the word ‘nation’.

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Dear Dana,

I recalled a talk I had seen a few months ago called “Art and Nationhood” in which one of the speakers, Junot Diaz, was speaking about the concept of a nation. He mentioned that “a nation is made up of its counter-nation: its silenced, its exclusions … its disavowed dead”. Speaking about the dead only raises notions of the marginal – those pushed to the edges, those who we do not consider first, those who don’t fit into the neoliberal realm of white supremacy. These are the people who struggle to find space in a world where space is already designated, and because of this they encounter a dilemma in dualities. This means the heavy-handed task of learning both the curriculum of society and the curriculum of experience, lived with the body. The task, however, is a double task, where the body now runs on ‘E’ – empty, exhaustion, endurance – and for the marginal, the one ‘E’ that does not make it is ‘easy’.

I want to say that Yellow Towel touches upon this dilemma in many ways. To perform the marginal might mean to perform what is cast aside, a performance touching upon things made difficult. (That was the second note I wrote in my book.)

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Dear Dana,

Difficult.

What does it even mean to embody this? To question this? To re-cast this as a performer?

… To not just re-cast this.

Right?

Because performance doesn’t just re-enact. It’s not just a space for intricate repetition but a space for the constant process of negotiation, where experiences and cultures may collide.

In this space I watched you collapse onto a white, slouching, legless chair and attempt to drink a bottle of milk. Yet your body pulsed in rotation atop the chair. With slow jerks you sought comfortability, stability. You slid lower into an awkwardly folded, half-supine contortion and yet you still attempted to drink the milk. Pulsing on the floor, you attempted to drink the milk.

With your legs in a split, you finally drank the milk.

This seemed difficult.

And even in the midst of this difficulty, something urgent, immediate and consciously somatic, heralded new movement.

Pulling your cap off, you released a plethora of Q-tips.

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Dear Dana,

Thinking about those Q-tips.

Thinking about how one can listen in a space so filled with noise.

Thinking about how it is we can act from an internal place, through the internal voice – through an unconscious self that asks us to trust even when we cannot see the ends out of difficulty.

Thinking about the ‘what if’s’.

Those fucking annoying ‘what if’s’ that love to surround the intuitive voice.

What if I pull off my cap and all the Q-tips fall out?

And yet, however will we get to the new motion if we cannot find pleasure, or find (fun)ction in the present?

Who is to say the Q-tips falling was a mess – a disaster?

Because I watched you embrace that disaster, and use those Q-tips while blowing a horn and pulling out a banana from your back pocket in extravagant fashion, of course.

Twisted, contorted, baroque was the body. The elaboration/collaboration between the horn blowing, the scattered Q-tips and the body gripping and exploring new shapes ushered circularity.

A question: Might we find in the difficult a deluge of opportunity? A follow-up: Does this opportunity present itself for everyone? 

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Dear Dana,

The third note I wrote in my book was fluidity in movement and fluidity in the diaspora.

I googled Yellow Towel before the performance to prepare myself to be transported. And to see what this work was all about. Each description had something to say about the exploration of Black Identity – a weaving and unravelling of complex historical notions that perpetuate cultural stereotypes, that perpetuate curiosities.

What does it mean to explore the Black self? What is the role of time and space in this exploration? Might we draw connections between a physical manifestation and the physics of manifestation? What I mean by this is that there is indeed a physical manifestation of being Black, of seeing Blackness, of seeing Black skin and the Black self. But what about the moments when Blackness isn’t as apparent in the skin as it is in the blood? What about the moments of the diaspora when cultures mix, ethnicities mix, races mix and things become “obscure”? Do we not deem those bodies Black bodies, even in origin? And perhaps the physics of manifestation simply points to Blackness not just as a biological thing but a socially and discursively constructed thing. Blackness unfolds as a multifaceted and continuously unravelling phenomenon over space and time. And I consciously state both space and time because when it comes to Blackness, as you have portrayed here, and as it has been portrayed from the colonial to the ‘post-colonial’, it’s the diaspora that rules the dialogue. It’s not a question of ‘what’ Blackness is, but as theorist Michelle Wright discusses, “it in fact always operates as a ‘when’ and ‘where’”.

I saw this represented in Yellow Towel through sound, voice and movement.

Semiotic ruptures.

At moments you switched between a southern African-American accent and a maternal Caribbean accent of a TV cooking host. In linguistic terms this touches upon the historicity of ‘code switching’, which is a practice of alternating between two or more languages in a single conversation. In the sixteenth century, code-switching was used by slaves, particularly in the Caribbean, to communicate and often held hidden messages about possibilities for freedom. In current times, code-switching functions as a survival skill. Language becomes a medium of expression, an insertion of subjectivity, of creativity and communication, by which the lives of those made difficult are suddenly made radical with a warping of a word.

Words are worlds.

Words are also movements, acts and platforms for revelation.

When words follow stream-of-consciousness, there is a bodily reverberation.

Sentences lead to other sentences, other accents, other acts, other modes of being and to other corners of the room – which thus become connected, represented and recognized. Such a profusion of movement and representation raises questions of what is normal? What are the margins of the normal? I think its important to question the normal, or at least the fact that there is a dominant ideology operating within our lives whether we view it as directly acting upon us, or not. There’s a Gramscian concept known as “cultural hegemony” which is basically an idea at the wings of Marxism that suggests that the ruling class manipulates society with an imposed world-view and, because this world-view becomes accepted, it remains the dominant, natural and inevitable ideology for everyone. Even though it’s only beneficial for the ruling class, this hegemony finds itself in all our lives, and we might readily know it as the “status quo”.

Finds, binds, designs (!)

Doesn’t this sound diabolical?

I can absolutely appreciate a good, inquisitive theory. Especially one that looks at modes of Being. These are the things we must be curious about – the things we must question. The questions often lead to a recognition of present dissatisfaction, and what follows might be rebellion.

I want to say that the rebellion in Yellow Towel is the exploration of the margins of the normal while also exploring why it is that what is not normal is pushed to the margins.

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Dear Dana,

I didn’t want to write a typical review. I didn’t want to engage with something too academic, which is what I usually do.

Your performance felt beyond that.

I got the idea to write something more confessional through two pieces I enjoy: the first being the feminist cult classic I Love Dick by Chris Kraus in which she spills herself, pours emotion into the letter format while balancing such emotions as philosophy. Desires, love, rage are all bound into a sense of becoming a subject, where power reveals itself in vulnerability and self-narration.

The second was a recent collaborative work by Adam Pendleton and Yvonne Rainer called “Just back from Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer, 2016–2017”.

Why this one?

Because Yvonne is a Judson Theater Goddess …

and in it the text touches upon the thematics of my recent thoughts: ‘Apocalypse meets aesthetics at the Colonial Revival Garden’ or as Pendleton puts it:

“the double meaning of movement as choreography and movement as a social uprising.”

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Dear Dana,

I saw you live something.

I saw you return to the imaginary world that you created as a child imitating the blonde girls at school.

I saw the yellow tights, yellow wig, yellow pom pom.

I saw you bounce, bend, lift your leg – fall on the floor counting.

I saw you shake and attempt balance at the edge of the table where one leg fell to a point and the other leg followed.

I heard you mutter, repeat, chant.

I heard you say, “My hair is not white hair, Mexican, Chinese … not even horse hair.”

I heard you, felt you, watched you explore the tensions in your identity through the tensions between dance and theatre and what was exquisite was how all encompassing both tensions were for you as a performer and thus for me as the audience member who became an extension of this affect. I mostly felt that these tensions of identity had time. That these tensions of identity had a past, a present and a future. That these tensions had wants, needs, desires – experiences, expressions, impressions and information. That these tensions moved across the stage to affirm a dynamic self, to affirm a versatile self, to affirm that the self is always re-positioning, finding and exploring.

How ritualistic these tensions appeared.

To turn burden into songs when the hunch on your back revealed a horn.

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