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)