“…there is this contract written somewhere, whereby people will come and (witness) whatever it is you are after.”
Dana Michel is curled up in the corner of an old couch, one knee up, protective, like armour. She is a dancer and choreographer and the first year Resident Artist at Dancemakers Centre For Creation. Dana has already given one interview and I think would prefer to chill out before rehearsing for her revamp of 1976. We are in the rehearsal space at The Distillery District. The period building’s high ceilings and bright light from the massive windows are perfect to magnify the energy of this intense woman. We had a chance to chat about how she journeyed from the practical world of accounting and her job as a medical secretary. But the turning point in which she began dancing, choreographing and performing professionally, in what would be considered late in a dancer’s career, was seminal.
Raised in Ottawa by “immigrant parents from the Caribbean,” she talked about the responsibility and expectations she had in excelling in her life. “My parents sacrificed a hell of a lot.” The arts were not on her radar. She was successful in that other world, but there were glimmers of desire. Signposts that pushed her closer to this destination. She even walked into a professional dance company and asked if they needed a dancer. Naive, perhaps, but incredibly brave to follow her instincts. This is what her work is all about. “Intuitive improvisation.” She ended up as a mature student at the contemporary dance program at Concordia University. But it wasn’t until 2011 when she decided to take a sabbatical at her day job as a medical secretary. “I’m 35, and it’s like, it’s now or never. Am I really going to do this, or am I hobby doing this. So let’s see what happens.” She applied to a five week intensive at the prestigious ImPulsTanz festival; training grounds for some of Europe’s best dancers. She didn’t think she’d get in, as there were “these crazy amazing technical dancers.” She did and her time in Vienna was momentous.
Now she comes to Dancemakers Centre For Creation, here in Toronto. Her presence there will hopefully strengthen the tradition of contemporary dance in Canada. Her work has an improvisational feel to it and has a strong element of bricolage woven in her works. Bricolage is the art of making things with whatever materials are at hand – it gained popular acceptance as a strong element in the hip hop culture. “Generally I start off with an idea for a title. Sometimes it’s a colour. There’s a lot of inclusion, but there is a method. There’s a lot of guiding light. There’s nothing random.” She is also known for heavy prop use. “Maybe I’ll decide to have an ice cube placed on the stage. And it seems completely random, but for me, that ice cube represents something soothing and indicates where I’m going to walk to (within the choreography). It gives me a bit more freedom.” She chooses her props “Intuitively.”
Creating works over the years has been an evolutionary process for her. “It can be very, very painful. Depending on what I am defining as process.” Whether it is cooking with her husband, observing street life or working in the rehearsal space, it is equally important to her. The discoveries lead to new inspirations. “It’s becoming quite organic, so process is less painful than before. So before the beauty was to perform, because it was like, okay now I am actually working.” Now she just lives it. Dana continues, “The performance is the thing, but the amalgamation is the rest of it.” But performing is still “the ultimate freedom. Because there is this contract written somewhere, whereby people will come and support whatever it is you are after. Not necessarily support, but they will be a witness. They might hate it, but they will be there to witness it. This helps me work out the mystery of what it is I am doing.”
Dana Michel is called a “dance artist.” She dislikes labels. “This is important for me. I need a looseness for the thing to be, without holding it down at all. It is important to get rid of as many definitions as possible. And being called a dance artist is already a very rigid term. This is a big conversation within the dance world.” She has no agenda with her pieces. “I’m never trying for anything. It’s very organic in it’s conception.” Her featured work at Dancemakers, 1976, is very much an allegory for her biography. It was also the year she was born. “At a certain point when I started to do solo work, the obvious choice was to work with the material that I knew best, which was me, who I barely know. I think I know, but I’m also quite aware that I barley know anything.” The walls echo her deep, staccato laugh at this revelation. It’s all very self exploratory, which is what Dancemakers offers it’s Resident Artists, a chance to “research.” Zoja Smutny is the local Resident Artist whose piece Recent Future is also featured in the January 22-24th run. For Dana Michel (and I suspect for Zoja as well), it’s all about connecting with her audience. “If I can dig deep inside, and we’re all different people, but if I dig deep inside, I can connect with others.”
In Touch – 1976 & Recent Future ran January 22 through the 24th. 1976 – Have Several hits the Dancemakers stage again, January 28 – 30th. Dancemakers is located in the historic Distillery District, 9 Trinity Street, Studio 313. Tickets are $25.00 and can be purchased online through dancemakers.org.