In her baggy black sweats, Dana Michel edges her way into the entirely white space. She is hunched over, arms curled and twisted, tense and shaking. Her affectation is not dramatic and presentational the way struggle in dance is often presented, but rather all-consuming and enduring. It is a journey to make it even halfway across the stage. Groans and constrained sounds find their way through the thick tangle of her physicality; occasionally intelligible words erupt in fits and starts. Michel’s form is misshapen by objects shoved beneath her clothes, including a yellow trumpet, which she attempts to play, but holds upside down from the wrong side. Each and every action is excruciating in its effort, with Michel taking the hardest possible approach to task after confounding task.
This was Yellow Towel, Michel’s solo work presented at On the Boards March 3–6. The work was inspired by Michel’s childhood; she used to drape a yellow towel on her head to emulate the blonde girls at school. At times Michel’s character flashed glimpses of something recognizable, but it was as if Michel had pulverized a host of racially charged tropes and stereotypes into a slurry of something entirely new. Her form carried so many ideas simultaneously that it was a wonder she could move at all; she existed somewhere between complete powerlessness and debilitating control.
By the end, she was covered in the food she had tasked herself to eat: a liter of milk, a package of saltines, a banana, marshmallow fluff. It was at once sickening and heart wrenching. It was not pretty. In fact, it’s hard to recall a performance that has so completely eschewed every kind of beauty standard. With her body contorted and face gaping, struggling with the most basic tasks, it was hard to avoid the comparison to movement associated with certain kinds of disabilities. Here is a sensitive topic—one easier to avoid than confront—but it’s part of what makes Michel’s performance so challenging. At first it produced shock and a moment of indignation: is an able-bodied person even allowed to take on this kind of physicality? Normally it would be forbidden. But there is no “making fun” here or even imitation. What redeems Michel’s performance is that she is so clearly embodying not something outside of herself but something within her. Something true to her own experience. Furthermore, it seems problematic to disqualify those kinds of physicalized expressions. When we see a disabled person physically struggle, are we not seeing a person trying to deal with an incompatible world? One that was designed, by negligence or otherwise, to impede them? As a physical metaphor, it is remarkably apropos for institutionalized racism.
For everything she puts herself through, Michel doesn’t let the audience off the hook, either. She holds our face up to the ugly, to the struggle, and demands that we watch. The tension built through her physicality yearns for release, and each moment of metamorphosis or humor gives hope that maybe this character will be able to move on and shake it off, easing our captive empathy. Instead, she never gives us that satisfaction. We must carry Yellow Towel with us.
More information about Dana Michel at www.danamichel.ca and www.danielleveilledanse.org. More information about On the Board’s 2015/2016 season at www.ontheboards.org.