Updated: Feb 19
Cutlass Spring — Dana Michel.
Feb 6-8. The Dance Center. PuSh Festival 2020.
By Alex Lazaridis F.
Thank God for Dana Michel. Just when I start to wonder why people bother to make live performance, when I ask myself why every show looks less like art and more like product, Michel reminds me that art is still possible—specifically art that refuses to make itself simplistically comprehensible. Michel never dictates meaning. I’m free to make my own. But how to settle on any meaning at all seems, to me, an exercise in futility—a futility I can really appreciate.
Take Cutlass Spring. The audience is seated on four sides of the main performance area, which is a rectangle of white vinyl flooring with about 12 white plastic chairs at one end, and a small platform on casters at the other. The chairs are formally arranged in rows, as if awaiting an audience, or as if the chairs themselves are the audience. The house lights go dark, and when a much dimmer lighting state returns I can see Dana Michel sitting on the platform with her legs folded under her. She’s wearing a kind of red and black mackinaw jacket, big white shorts, and black dress shoes that are way too big for her feet.
She begins with a slow stimming action that reminds me of a bored child trying to comfort herself. She rocks side to side, back and forth, and makes a rythmic clicking sound with her mouth. She then produces a very large fork, which she uses as a paddle to push herself around the stage. The fork is then put in the service of dismantling the rows of chairs. There’s nothing methodical about this. Like a child who hasn’t yet mastered the operation of utensils, or of even her own body, using the fork as an extension of the hand makes the manipulation of objects on stage that much more difficult. And so the dismantling seems half-intended and half-accident. Besides the fork, Michel lets her own body slowly crash through the plastic furniture.
Michel undermines her own physical mastery by remaining as alert to every moment as it emerges, and by allowing that emergence to influence her next action. If Cutlass Spring is about anything, it might be this: the moment-to-momentness of genuinely collaborating with whatever’s happening at a given instant. Whether this is accomplished by trying to recapture the newness of a child’s view of the world, or by just dialing down the thinking process in a way that interrupts our tendency to pre-plan every coming second, the result is the same: within a broad schematic of getting from point A to point B, a billion surprises are possible.
At the end of the show Michel gets into brown leather pants (over silk red boxing shorts), a brown bomber jacket, a beret, and, with triumphant horns blowing from somewhere in the distance, pulls on a rope hanging from the rigging. This raises into the air what looks like four white lace tablecloths forming a box. Again the fulfilment of this action is made uncertain due to the fact that she’s pulling the rope while standing on the rolling platform and trying to move the platform by shifting her hips back and forth.
Now, if I were looking at Cutlass Spring through the lens of postcolonial or critical race theory I might read the situation very differently. The symbols are obvious: A black woman, often half naked, performs on a white stage to a psuedo-audience of white chairs and an actual audience of mostly white patrons (which, in my experience of contemporary dance in Canada, is still the main group of patrons). Every action can be seen as a challenge to that audience’s apparently inherent, systemic racism. And every action, every item of clothing, every object on stage can be seen as a sign of—and defiance of—racist ‘white’ stereotyping of ‘black’ people.
It’s defiant because of the constant shifting of body, object, and action. Things keep transforming. If you’re looking at Cutlass Spring for what it represents, it’s hard to settle on what each body, thing, or action is a representation of. What do the mackinaw jacket, white shorts over red satin boxer shorts, black socks, and long black dress shoes represent as an ensemble? What does a woman rolling around in a sheet, pushing plastic chairs with a huge fork represent? It resists easy interpretation. Actually, a critical race theorist might side-step semiotic analysis and just present the story of a black woman disrupting the white supremacist gaze in a theatre in downtown Vancouver—a former colonial outpost of the former British Empire.
This resistance to interpretation reminds me of Dana Michel’s 2013 work Yellow Towel, which I saw at Festival Trans Amerique in Montreal. In my review for RealTime Arts that year I wrote, “Taken as a whole, the gestures are a strange assemblage of North American Black culture cliches—everything from gangsta, to Rasta, to Fat Albert cartoons mashed together. Choreogapher-performer Dana Michel […] stretches the stereotypes about as far as you can.” Meaning the stereotypes don’t hold. Racial stereotypes are someone else’s reductive idea of who you are. They serve the purpose of letting you think you know the other. Michel’s shows are an exercise in not knowing.
I think my brief semiotic analysis above is a valid way of looking at Cutlass Spring, but to be honest I’m not that interested in it in the context of this particular show. I’m not sure Dana Michel is either. She doesn't describe the work that way in any of the online interviews I've watched. When she does try to explain—with some hesitation—what Cutlass Spring might be about, she says, “My point of departure is sex, or sex education. That might not be what people see, or read, or feel from the work. For me the important part is bouncing from that place and then allowing it to reverberate in a multitude of ways” (link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yf5raXxnVUc ).
It did appear to me at times that something vaguely sexual in some of the movement, something auto-erotic, was at play, but about twenty other ways of understanding the movement also occurred to me. The thing is, I don’t look to live performances of this kind for explicit meaning or moral judgement. I’m not interested in summing up the experience in a thematically comprehensible way. I’m interested in the revelations that come through feeling the event, attending to the entirety of the experience—theatre, body, objects, light and sound—with my whole perceptual bodymind. What draws me to Dana Michel’s work is her aliveness to the moment and the way she lets her body respond in ways that seem to surprise even her. Of course, she doesn’t pretend to a neutral or idealized dancer-body of any kind. Rather she digs into idiosyncratic feeling states and amplifies them. She develops a particular bodily way of entering the work. It feels to me like an invitation to do the same.
CREATOR, PERFORMER Dana Michel ARTISTIC ACTIVATORS Ellen Furey, Peter James, Mathieu Léger, Heidi Louis, Roscoe Michel, Karlyn Percil, Yoan Sorin, Alanna Stuart SOUND CONSULTANT David Drury LIGHTING DESIGNER Karine Gauthier TECHNICAL DIRECTOR Karine Gauthier PRODUCTION Dana Michel EXECUTIVE PRODUCTION Par B.L.eux DISTRIBUTION Key Performance – Julia Asperska, Koen Vanhove