Dana Michel: Yellow Towel

Fact: Portland, Oregon is the whitest major city in the United States according to The Washington Post and confirmed by the U.S. Census Bureau.

On the evening of Saturday, September 19, 2015 at 8:30 pm, a predominantly white audience gathered under white flood lights in the small stark room of Bodyvox Dance studio, complete with white drapes and white floor, to watch Dana Michel’s black body shuffle, writhe, stutter, and groan in her performance titled, “Yellow Towel” as part of PICA’s (Portland Institute for Contemporary Art) TBA Festival.

Photo Credit: Ian Douglas

Dana Michel, a choreographer and performer based in Montreal, Canada drew the dance’s name from her childhood when she would wear a yellow towel on her head to “emulate blonde girls”. In May of 2014, following her second performance of “Yellow Towel,” Michel in conversation with Jaamil Olawale Kosoko from Movement Research talked about the genesis of her work and revealed how she avoided the issues of race as a performer before “Yellow Towel”:

...I had gone out of my way to not make “black work” and not address blackness in my work because from the get go, from the start of my career, every critique that was ever written, every conversation, every conversation with the lighting designer, it was always brought back to, “Oh you’re clearly doing African dance, you’re clearly influenced by hip-hop, you know…” And I just wanted to do that work that I needed to do without it being put in any kind of particular box. I was going out of my way to not talk black and in this piece, after all of these years of going out of my way to not do black things and repeatedly the critiques of… “black, black, black, black, black, black,” I’m like, “Ok, you want black? I’ll give you black.

In my online research, I found this accurate account of Michel’s performance as summarized by local writer Noah Dunham for the Portland Mercury:

With the house lights still on, Michel entered unceremoniously, dressed all in black—black hoodie, black pants—and proceeded to speak inaudibly, moving across the stage embodying (both accurately and poetically) what I assumed to be a homeless addict. Michel would begin an uncomfortable ritual of sorts, spreading a white substance across her face. She lounged on a white cushion (the set was essentially all made up by white pieces), sloppily drinking milk and pouring it down her chin. All the while, Michel sputtered words and unfinished sentences. Twenty minutes into the piece, the house lights were still on (they remained so), the space was still silent aside from Michel’s mumblings...

The piece progressed from there as Michel shifted and changed costumes… eating and spitting out food items such as bananas and white crackers…Michel played out a phone conversation with an aunt or grandmother who was teaching her how to make a baked crisp. Then, Michel revealed a blonde wig that she attempted to brush with an afro-pick before attaching it to her own hair.

Music was eventually incorporated in the performance as well as a couple light cues...

Her performance was a series of one stumbling black stereotype after another, and she toed the line uncomfortably between caricature and reality. Dunham fails to mention that before Michel shuffled onto the stage, we, the audience, were instructed to not just mute, but turn off our cell phones, and that no photos or recordings were allowed. Our attention was instructed, and demanded. The quiet of the room amplified not only Michel’s movements and auditory mumblings, but everyone else’s rustling and discomfort as well. Five audience members left at different times before the performance was over, and those sounds of leaving landed louder than a hammer on plywood.

I can’t assert confidently the reasons why they left, but I can certainly assume. By the observable demographics of the room, I probably don’t have to tell you that all five of them were white. I can only be responsible for my own feelings during the show, and I did not want to move. I worried that I would bring too much attention to myself. That my restlessness, the minor shifts in my chair, would loudly and suddenly mark my presence in the room—that I would be found out in all my own discomfort, confronting my own judgments and confusions about Michel’s performative “dance.”