Dana Michel on Movement, Life, Work, and MIKE

Honour Lackey, Creative Content & PR Intern

May 03, 2024

A person sits in the background, staring at a large canister vacuum in the foreground.

Both personally and professionally, Dana Michel is a physical communicator. In conversation, her hands flex and flutter, as if physically pulling thoughts and memories from the air around her. By her own admission, she also laughs—a lot.

Michel visits the center this week for the US premiere May 3–4 of MIKE, her gallery-based performance exploring routine and the work environment. Her love of movement is a guiding principle of her work, and with interests that span athletics, comedy and dance, the experiences that shape and inform her work are varied in their source. Michel's path to contemporary dance, much like her expansive nebula of inspiration, was not straightforward.

“I really fell into the lap of contemporary art and contemporary dance. I knew that I liked to dance, and I just wanted to do more dancing. I happened into this contemporary dance program that was run by people who were just freedom masters, and were like, ‘Go forth and create whatever you want,’” Michel says.

With this freedom, she had to ask herself what that meant for her.

“I was looking around me I'm like, how do I [do that]? What pockets can I reach into as I think about making vocabulary,” Michel says. “It seems like the thing that rolled out of me the easiest was physical comedy. I really like jokes; I like to laugh.”

A longtime fan of physical comedians, she felt imprinted, she says, by what they were able to create. This love of laughter is not only entwined into the movements and objects she is drawn to, but a large part of how Michel translates her ideas to the audience.

“If I look at this psychologically, [comedy’s] obviously the butter. It's like the balm that makes things easier to process, that makes things easier to look at, that makes them easy to discuss,” Michel says.

This butter, according to Michel, helps her translate her ideas to the audience—she uses this common language to subtly transmit her message, like “sliding a note across the table.”

“I’m seeing the connection between a slippery snake, or sliding a note, a butter or balm—it’s what will allow me to get into a territory that I’m interested in and what will allow people to maybe loosen up, be open to exploring stuff,” Michel says.

"If I look at this psychologically, [comedy’s] obviously the butter. It's like the balm that makes things easier to process, that makes things easier to look at, that makes them easy to discuss."

Before she was an artist of movement, she directed her energy to the medium of athletics. Although she was a competitive runner, the sport she recalls most fondly is touch football.

Growing up in Ottawa, Canada, she was involved in sports from a young age, but continued to play on touch football teams into her 20s. Michel took part in the sport for around six years, until she moved to Montréal.

“I left my football team behind, I was living downtown and didn’t have a car,” Michel says. “I didn’t know anything or know anyone.”

The connective tissue between touch football and contemporary dance? Attending raves, she says.

“What I loved about it was that I could go to a place by myself, not knowing anyone, and be in the dark and dance for hours and hours and hours,” Michel says. “The social rules were just completely different. I could be in community and communion with everyone around me without having to look at anyone or having to talk to anybody. Everybody was just, like, focused on the music.”

The experience allowed Michel to feel “embodied” and find community with people through a different method of interaction. This embodiment, she says, pours over into her performance art.

“Similarly to the rave, where it's not like I felt like I was by myself and I didn't care about anyone—it’s kind of the opposite—[performance] is a safe way of being with a whole load of people and being able to interact with, socialize with and communicate with people, but in a completely different way,” Michel says.

MIKE, the piece that Michel’s bringing to the Wex, was first conceptualized in 2019, when Michel was wrapping up and reflecting on an earlier project. The idea of trust was an early informant, but after the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Michel became fixated on how work relates to and informs one’s self-concept.

“What’s the first thing that you ask a kid?” Michel says. “'What do you want to be when you grow up?’”

“It's all we think about—it takes up this, like, humongous part of our lives,” she says. “During the pandemic, I started noticing how many people were really struggling and suffering now that the dynamics of work have changed.”

From this realization sprang the questions that guided Michel through the work: How can we feel better about what we spend the majority of our lives doing? If we can’t be ourselves in the workplace, how do we know ourselves? How do we trust ourselves—and what does that take?

In MIKE, Michel feels particularly called to the minutiae. On her bookshelf is cartoonist Chris Ware’s graphic novel, Building Stories, in which he explores the lives of the residents living in a Chicago housing complex.

“He draws these really detailed, really intimate, mundane life moments. It’s not spectacular, it doesn’t ever feel like he’s forcing a perspective. He’s so wrapped up in showing you every detail,” Michel says. “I think that’s what’s happening in MIKE. In MIKE, I gave myself the permission I needed to slow down and spend more time with the details of things. That’s what I want more of in life, as well.”


Top of page: Dana Michel, MIKE; photo: ©Françoise Robert

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