The roots of Montréal dancer Dana Michel’s Mercurial George are made explicit in her interview for the FTA, where the work premiered last night: “Monkeys are an avenue to explore, one of the initial sparks, but I don’t lead the audience by the hand straight down that path,” she says, explaining part of her inspiration for this astounding new work.

Furthering many of the themes and strategies in her Impultanz-winning Yellow Towel (2014), Michel’s prop-heavy, idea-loaded new work strayed further away from dance into the messy realm of performance art – and as an audience member, I was more than happy to be led down her path. For over an hour, Michel twitches, manipulates a panoply of objects (microphones, dough, plastic toys); she dances, poses, and writhes with a mesmerizing inevitability, punctuated by mumbling, singing, and quasi-cinematic tableaux.

Known for challenging and multi-layered work that seems to stem from a bottomless well of angst and wit, Dana Michel’s Mercurial George is likely to garner similar altitudes of praise (and sold-out shows) as her breakthrough work. If we include her work-in-progress Lift That Up (Dancemakers, 2016, yet to be performed on home turf), I might venture to say she has a trilogy on her hands.

As a black dancer and artist working in Montréal and internationally, Dana Michel has an uncanny sense of the artistic and political zeitgeist in her twitching, semi-verbal, prop-wielding performances. In the place of Yellow Towel’s iconic hoodie – initially performed the same year Trayvon Martin was shot dead, while wearing one, by Florida gunslinger George Zimmerman – Mercurial George presents a more oblique exploration of racialization and our society’s violent discomfort with biological categories.

This time, she pinpoints 20th-century children’s book character Curious George as one node to the multiple references she makes in her new piece. While George the Curious was a fictional monkey who befriends the ambiguous “Man with the Yellow Hat,” Michel’s memory of her stuffed animal is the elephant (or rather, monkey) in the room, a cipher for our perennial anxiety about our distinction from primates, and the biopolitical implications of that anxiety. As the adjective “mercurial” may suggest, Michel’s curiosity with the primate theme has been supplanted by an ever-changing range of motions, a vanload of found object-symbols that constantly disrupt our frame of reference and our spectatorial complacency.

mercurial george 2Some of our complacency as spectators – within the largely white, Eurocentric realm of contemporary dance – comes from how we expect a black woman’s body to perform; indeed, much of Michel’s work smartly combines her own virtuosic skills with the mimesis of cultural stereotypes that has become her calling card. In her FTA interview with Elsa Pépin, the choreographer describes being on vacation in France when one of her husband’s cousins, a “primate anthropologist” – an interdisciplinary application of anthropology to primatology? – showed her video footage of African great apes that made her uncomfortable.

“I’ve been afraid of monkeys ever since I was a little girl, unnerved by their strangeness, by how closely related they are to humans,” Michel relates. “I suddenly became aware that I was the only black person in the room, and I oddly wondered whether the others were watching me to study my reaction, making strange associations.”

That sense of discomfort she had in witnessing the great apes in her in-law’s video – and the self-consciousness she describes as a black woman of Saint Lucian heritage in a room of white people – contains an eerie syntax with this week’s tabloid-story-du-jour, that of a three year-old boy falling into the Cincinnati zoo’s gorilla compound. The child’s rescue led to the shooting of the animal, who is named in the press almost as if it were a human victim; the outpouring of sympathy for the death of the gorilla has become a media zoo unto itself, underscoring white America’s more acute concern for caged animals than for the black bodies American police kill with impunity. The fact that the boy’s family happened to be black made the situation even more charged, given that Ohio is a state that disproportionally prosecutes and incarcerates black people, especially women (luckily, Cincinnati police have said they will not lay the ludicrous charges of child negligence against the mother).

If you find my tangents are helictical, then I should tell you they are only beginning, and that the myriad of associations and references Dana Michel offers in Mercurial George surpass any easy first-watch understanding. In his influential 2003 tome The Open, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben addresses how the floating, factious, and fictional distinctions between what we call “human” and “animal” illustrate a set of malfunctions we perpetuate in the West with our “anthropological machine.”

Where other philosophers might see the self-world (Heidegger) or I-and-thou (Buber) distinctions as examples of where we have gone wrong in our civilizational thinking, Agamben asserts that the human-animal is a specious difference that sets us up for denigrating the body, the collective, and ultimately, groups of people we see as different from “ourselves,” or from the selves who hold power. Dana Michel has taken up this thesis, but with a creepy and sui generis twist.

“I’ve always been attracted to marginality, by those on the fringes, in part probably because I was one of the very few black people all throughout my schooling… I’m a sponge, and all my life I’ve felt drawn by the beauty of the other, by difference, by those who don’t speak or walk according to accepted standards,” she tells us.

Just past the halfway point of Mercurial George, Michel dons a 1950s-style taupe fascinator and we hear the hissing strains of a vinyl recording of Nina Simone’s lyrical 1965 hit Feeling Good. It’s a song that has been so thoroughly coopted by advertising campaigns that its origins as a civil rights ballad (as covered by Simone the year after its release) are often overlooked.

A quote here, a wink there, a murmur of gospel and nursery music at other moments, Michel’s sonic palette is as surgical as her manipulation of costume and props is disarming. Race, labour, food, childhood, self-protection, refuge, and a throbbing connection with the creative subconscious are all themes lavishly at play in Mercurial George.

With sold-out shows at the FTA, Montréalers may have to wait until this in-her-prime artist gets to present her untitled (and unannounced) trilogy. If that happens, may I suggest it be called The Open Trilogy, because that is the state of mind we leave Dana Michel’s performance with: an openness to deconstruction and to our own self-examination as spectators complicit in biological distinctions that we cannot always justify, and shouldn’t.

Mercurial George  by Dana Michel @ Festival Transamériques (Théâtre LaChapelle/Daniel Léveillé Danse)
June 2-5, 2016 (tickets)

“Stay in control,” a distorted voice tells you time again throughout the 85-minute Tauberbach, brought to the Monument National theatre by the Festival Transamériques (FTA) for two nights of packed houses. It’s the kind of show that can only emerge from the lavishly state-funded alternate universe otherwise known as Northern Europe.

The German-Belgian dance theatre company Les Ballets C de la B, helmed by luminary director Alain Platel, is a major player in a part of the world that can afford to give a troupe of dancers three uninterrupted months to produce a piece collaboratively, and end up touring the world with a rider that includes 3000 kilograms of mass-produced clothing.

Strewn over the stage in piles from which Platel’s seven dancers emerge (and into which they disappear to comic effect), the three tons (yes, tons) of clothes become the props, set, and habitat for actress Elsie de Brauw and her six acolytes to play with. Teasing the audience with repeated scenes of decadent non-language (like that pan-cultural idiom that Cirque du Soleil clowns speak in, but more intelligible), the athletic characters combine and disperse in a world so artificial that their bodies seem to melt into the polyester. Often employing cinematic techniques of otherwise “cheesy” slow-motion or rewound gestures, the dancers transfix you as they play on a mobile heap of Apocalypse Apparel.

4_tauberbach_cr_chris_van_der_burght_7056“I did not shit this house / There are no more innocent people. There are only wise guys in reverse,” De Brauw’s garbage-picking crone Estamira intones. So this, in a world where refugees to Europe are drowned at sea like so much jetsam, where landfills are so overflowing that ships of garbage are sent to poor countries to handle the overflow, is meant to tell us that we are complicit in Estamira’s material oppression. We are sucked into the performers’ often slapstick physical comedy and then rebuffed by scenes that seem unnecessary or excessive: the artifice and violence of this filthy world – that is only symbolically filthy – appeals to the child within us while repelling our anal-retentive adult tastes.

Tauberbach is the opposite of the nicely arranged electronic music that so often accompanies contemporary dance; it is an indictment against the empty black (or white) stage with a lap-top on it. “What a blessing nothing grows,” we are told by the Beckett-like main character. If only we could say that of the extravagant quantities of man-made waste we dump into forests and oceans. Alas, no: the natural world recedes and the garbage keeps growing. And we dance in its wake.

Belonging to the generation of 80s legends that redefined “maximalist” choreography (Jan Fabre, Caterina Sagna, Carolyn Carlson, and the late Pina Bausch), Platel is a wizard of uncanny juxtapositions. While his last envoy to the FTA, Gardenia (2011), was an episodic character study of seven geriatric drag artists, Tauberbach takes inspiration from two artworks far removed from the realm of contemporary Tanztheater: Brazilian director Marcos Prado’s Estamira, about a middle-aged woman and her entourage who eek a living off a garbage dump, and Polish interdisciplinary artist Arthur Zmijewski’s film Singing Lesson 2 which features a choir of young deaf people singing well-known works by J.S. Bach. It’s a typical Platel chiastic of the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

There’s a reason that this work of vocal, visceral, baroque dance theatre also manages to be a crowd-pleaser, well two reasons, really: Ross McCormack and Romeu Runa. The former with his up-close-and-salivating vocal techniques and muscular presence, the latter with his Ivo Demchev-like back-bending animalism, are like extraterrestrial siblings: complete control and complete abandonment. Bach in a garbage pile. Everything.

The business of contemporary dance is like a party with no closing time. Dancers exhaust and brutalize their bodies. Curators (party-planners in their own way) want to catch the hot new thing while it’s still fresh, and burn their budgets on international productions that have to be shown now to meet the demands of rarefied audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. At the end of the night, bodies are drenched in sweat, money’s spent, and none of us get to go home with the hot guy.

In Trajal Harrell’s Antigone Sr. / 20 Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (L), the eros of the performance may distract you from the social commentary that permeates this prolific artist’s work. When I spoke to Harrell two years ago about his baroque collaborative work (M)imosa, with Marlene Freitas (also at the FTA this year), he spoke of his ground-breaking series of dance pieces as a way of reactivating and reimagining history.

A Yale graduate who studied under preeminent queer feminist scholar bell hooks, Harrell is the darling of the dance world right now, the newest and most intellectual expression of that always fertile – and très New York – antinomy: “the high-low” juxtaposition. His series, now a hallmark of postmodern dance, posits what dance may have looked like in a hypothetical world where black and latino Harlem voguers “came downtown” to the largely white laboratory of new dance and the Fluxus school, an auditorium known as the Judson Memorial Church. This is revisionist history given life, with the complexity of race, class, and sexuality left in.

But back to the hot guys we don’t go home with: Thibaut Lac, a coltish youth with the chiseled body of a model, Rob Fordeyn, a mercurial Flem who dons 5-inch heels to reign as a butch queen MC for one portion of the performance, Ondrej Vidlar (the Czech bear), and the breathtaking Stephen Thompson. As he did in (M)imosa, Harrell speaks directly to the audience: he sits, stands, hunches over his lap-top, or perches like an oracle on a small dais, nonchalantly dancing with his troupe, but mostly hovering, sitting in the aisles of Usine C reading from his iPad.

Adopting the dance-theatre technique of both improvised and memorized texts delivered in live voice, the dancers repeatedly pick up the mic to chant, sing, speak in aphorisms, or act as judge and commentator on the lengthy deconstructed “runway” fashion shows that form the central movement of Antigone Sr. Delicious and fun, but obviously not “dance” enough for the dozen or so “customers” who left halfway through the show.

Trajal Harrell (center), photo from his Facebook page

Harrell further flouted tradition by announcing in plain English, at the top of the show, exactly what he is going to do: mix voguing with postmodern contemporary art-for-art’s-sake dance, and further splice these sources with a rereading of the Sophocles tragedy Antigone, about a princess who defies her king/brother by ensuring her murdered other brother gets a decent burial. Even if the piece is so replete with references (to voguing balls, pop culture – specifically Britney Spears, Tori Amos, and Zebra Katz – and classical Greek tragedy) that very few audiences anywhere could ever grasp its essence entirely, Harrell’s opening speech was a bold and unpretentious way of putting us all on the same page. You can read the programme notes if you like, but you don’t have to. There’s a show to enjoy.

Like his contemporary, Miguel Gutierrez, whose “Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note” had a sold-out run at the Whitney Biennial last month, Harrell is not interested in being hermetic. He may confuse you. He may outwit you. But he wants you to be in on the game.

Having done a little voguing myself, and been fascinated by its high/low play of dance, fashion, and queer realities (and theories), I was struck by how predictable and familiar some of the tableaux in Antigone Sr. seemed. The runway show with surreally manipulated Salvation Army finds (did that in 2011); the drawn-out fashion show imitations, essential to voguing, had a been-there, seen-that quality (Pippo Delbono and both went there years ago); and above all, the long, variously beautiful and banal turns at the microphone, which is a trend in dance that might not die anytime soon, and has spawned many a less successful imitator.

Smartly however, Harrell bookends his Size Large version of this challenging work with solo segments by his dancers, sometimes side by side, gorgeously lit on white rectangular “islands.” As in voguing, each of the performers’ particular charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent were allowed to shine, with Thompson and Fordeyn virtually stealing the show at the end. Thibault Lac, if you’re reading this: great catwalk!

Harrell positions himself as choreographer, dancer, theorist, revisionist historian, author, MC, and businessman, producing versions of his works in various sizes according to his customers’ budgets. According to the programme notes, once his 20 Looks… series is completed with an Extra Large version of Antigone Sr., he will be leaving the voguing/Fluxus duality, and all its camp and headiness, behind him to explore that purest of dance forms: Butoh.

With Paris is Burning’s 25th anniversary coming up next year, the revisiting of this urban art form by makers of high (i.e. heavily funded and talked about) art may be on its way out. You may want to get to the dance floor while the music is still pumping.

Antigone Sr. / 20 Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (L) Wed. June 4, 8PM, @ Usine C, Part of the Festival Transamériques

Featured photo by Bengt Gustafsson with dancers (L to R): Rob Fordeyn, Stephen Thompson, Thibault Lac