For last week's opening show of the Walker Art Center's Out There festival, Teatro El Público presented a performance awash in text. This week, choreographer and performer Dana Michel takes the McGuire Theater stage for a solo where words are elusive: they're either quietly sung or heard in a distorted voiceover. As she conveys her body back and forth across the stage, Michel invites us to consider the many meanings of that movement.
Some context is important. The Caribbean-Canadian artist created her best-known previous piece, Yellow Towel, in 2013. The solo directly confronted expectations and stereotypes around race, the title referring to the fact that in her childhood, Michel would sometimes wrap her hair in a yellow towel to look like the blonde girls in her neighborhood.
Michel's Out There piece, Mercurial George, premiered in 2016. In a program note, she calls it "another science experiment. This is another ground on which to test skins that belong to me, outfits and ideas that may or may not have been imposed."
She also calls the performance a wade "through the hairy rubble of a preliminary anthropological dig." That's how audiences most directly experience the piece, on a stage strewn seemingly randomly with props. Michel emerges from the shadows of stage right, her body bare except for white leggings and a pair of sneakers.
She crawls slowly into a spotlight, moving as though she's just arrived in her body and is figuring out what to do with it. It's well into the performance before she stands fully upright, and even then, her posture is never stable. Over the course of 75 minutes, she interacts with each of the props in succession. The basic elements of life are there on stage: food, shelter, clothing, entertainment.
The effect is sometimes superficially comical, as in the performance's opening minutes when a heap of tarp-like bags proves to contain a live microphone. Michel grabs it, fumbles it, sticks it under her arm. For an extended passage, all we hear are the clunks and rasps of various surfaces impacting the mic. Michel sings softly to herself, but she only voices snatches of melodies and we catch them through the mic almost incidentally.
The potential metaphors multiply by the moment: there's voice, there's body, there are lights and tools, and a bag of rice that's ultimately strewn across the stage. What does it all mean? There's no definitive answer because this isn't a piece about finding answers: It's about sitting with questions. In forcing her audience to live with ambiguity, Michel invites a reconsideration of the various signifiers that surface in the course of her performance.
Audiences will vary in what they make of those signifiers, but Michel's commitment to the physical and aesthetic rigor of the performance is universally compelling. There are moments of strange beauty — for example, a strobe-lit performance in a black tent that might be seen as a lectern or a pulpit — but the piece's central effect isn't visual.
The effect is physical, as we enter the space with Michel and suspend time. If you look back at your fellow audience members, you may find they're sitting stock-still, whether in respect or in perplexity or both. Michel invites us to find new meanings together, although none of us can leave our own "rubble" entirely behind.
IF YOU GO:
Walker Art Center
8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday
- Art Box, a new performance space run by Off-Leash Area, opens this Saturday
- Mosaic Production's 'The Voysey Inheritance' quietly ponders a crooked family empire
- Puppy Bowl at Bent, Midwest photography exhibition: A-List 1.10-16
- Oh, great: Garrison Keillor's writing a book called 'Inappropriate Behavior'