Dana Michel comes to her work at the opposite end of the spectrum from Marie Chouinard — who’s also in the festival with a solo — in terms of recognition and process. Always a physical performer and a former athlete, Michel brings a very different logic to solo performance in Yellow Towel. Like Chouinard’s, Michel’s work is set in a predominantly white room — the floor, the muslin curtains, various other props, all white. When she enters she’s completely cloaked in black — hoodie, cap, baggy jogging pants, though wearing white shoes with thick black soles. Her posture is hunched, and she’s carrying something on her back, accentuating her angularity (we find out later it’s a yellow trombone). This creeping, dark shadow of a person seems shielded — is it a young man or woman? Her whole body is involved in her stance, chest and shoulders turned in, the posture bent out of shape. He/she never looks up.
Fingers signal that something is amiss. One second they are relaxed, the next they seems to twitch uncontrollably. The lower lip, seen fleetingly in semi-profile, is full and weighted. The movements are hesitant. Then there is the sound of the voice — little, deep “aaahs,” dark and almost incoherent, rise and fall, creating a rhythmic groove. The vocalization fills the space and it’s a magnet for defining the piece, forcing you to listen and be transported by the sounds and words. Michel embarks on a performance that is richly textured, full of nuance and shift: this is a study of a human soul. When she does speak with words the sentences are dotted with random thoughts that seem like external manifestations of internal monologue and dialogue. She’s working on the detail of the sound, how to stress a word, the meaning of the rhythm of what’s said. It’s fascinating territory.
Her character is very alone. The stuttering, repetitive actions and words and sounds all indicate someone who is scared, wanting to hide, and yet not. What part of this character is invention, and what part is Michel is unknowable. The piece is ostensibly about digging into stereotypes of black culture and fascination with the blonde girls in her school. All kinds of visually intriguing moments spill out over the hour — when she applies white face makeup around her mouth and jaw, her body leaning almost in slumber or when she pulls out a banana on more than one occasion, letting her tongue go limp, or when she combs a strand of blonde hair extension, she is uncovering past histories in black culture, the recollection of which manages to evoke tragedy and magical transformation.
Time is exceptionally important in the development of the piece. In one section, her head rocks slowly, gently, and then her entire body begins to twitch, slightly, then building momentum, moving into a moment of aphasic athleticism, stretching, legs wide. Michel flirts with comic timing here and it’s easy to chuckle. But there’s something eerie in the way that she strips away layers of her selves. The action of drinking from a bowl is an extended, seemingly simplistic activity, but minutes stretch in the most languorous manner. It’s a matter of ‘it takes the time it takes,’ but the extended silence is mesmerizing.
Yellow Towel is constructed of rambling, stream-of-consciousness vocalizing and innate physical manifestation. The performance is malleable, courageous and difficult to watch. As much as it’s demanding on Michel to embody her characterizations, for the audience it demands focus and attention. There are tiny clicks in her speech, burbles and hesitations punctuating the air. The crazy shifts — from disabled, disjointed movement that is awkward and disquieting to a slowed-down, drawling type of physicality to a cracked-out lethargy – are equally and curiously enjoyable. The piece is a puzzle, comprised of many elements (perhaps too many), with all the sections bold and wild. There’s a cooking-show sequence with a recipe for soup that’s delivered with a Caribbean lilt that echoes her rapper kid persona. And then there’s a free-flowing monologue, a local weather update delivered by a Caribbean transplant in which her definitive voice expresses caution and disdain about our currently cold May in Montréal.
For the audience it’s not an easy show to understand, much less enjoy, and the night I saw the piece too many people walked out. But amidst all the sense and nonsense, there’s an authenticity in Michel’s work that’s terrifically pleasurable and rich.