Intimations for a “Pre-historic” Ballet: A Review Of Dana Michel’s Mercurial at FTA 2016

DanaDana Michel - Mercurial George

Mercurial first appears as a strewn machine (machinic)- with the outlay of its parts spread all across the stage and an intrepid voyager appearing (Dana Michel) very painstakingly and very slowly dragging across the floor to gather lost things and parts. Everything seems to be in a kind of slow motion as though a world had imploded right there before us, and with one last person “there”. “There” in first the phenomenological sense and then “there”, in the  post apocalyptic sense, to gather objects, things, and fragmented ideas ”that perhaps had once been”..

In 1964, with New York’s Judson Dance Theatre, the very square jawed odd ultra haunting beauty Lucinda Childs performed her epoch changing, Carnation, to odd “tuning of” objects: first releasing various objects out of a kitchen colander, then crowing herself with the kitchen
colander like a pre-historic autistic queen, in a deranged yet light ”prehistoric ballet” (Arlene Croce). In “Carnation” (a reference to the milk or the flower?) Lucinda Childs (soon to become one of  Robert Wilson’s go to’s) spreads apart sponges (that had been in the colander) into well organized piles, and then eventually adding the kitchen sponges to her kitchen colander crown, now become a mask , constructing a cosmological universe out of these household found objects. Light- brutal, non-weight with ironic wisps as anchors, Child’s character soon becomes a protean empress, complete with the elegant and regal gestures of a pedigreed royal kitchen household, whose banner might be that of household kitchen items.The end result is hypnotic. Michel’s Mercurial occupies this same strange-beautiful hynpnotic-disturbing realm.

Enter Lucinda Child’s protean inheritress, Dana Michel. Here the lightness comes only after the excruciating. We, as audience members are asked to voyage as equally intrepid voyagers like Dana Michel through the floor dragging and slow denouement of all the items she has hidden around the stage, and only after a while do we see this as a necessary ceremony. If we are in the realm of the kind of post - apocalyptic but without an actual  apocalypse having ever happened (i.e. the often empty feeling of living on planet earth now), Michel’s venture is not solely confined by some racial memory (“empire immemorial” ) anchors but moreover by memory itself. Memory is a drag one might say and “how the fuck” can we learn to forget- to wipe the slate clean.For in the post apocalyptic world before the apocalypse, the traumas we have lived come to the fore – trauma in itself for itself comes to the fore (pouring out dark sewage water onto our already worn faces) as a very general feeling of trauma, trauma, trauma. One gets the feeling here that Mercurial is essentially about an “arriere pays” (memory/ the immemorial), one where racial forming, people forming, brain and body forming had traumatized “its” inhabitants so far into the reaches of a particular civilization, in this case, this character’s psyche that she must now crawl/ walk/dance, pedal/ dive all a once, all the time every time, into Time.


dana4Dana Michel - Mercurial George

One is reminded of Roberto Bolano’s citing of the pervasiveness of our ”control” society, of the imperial master’s voice imitator always ringing ringing ringing deep into our heads, “And yet it all seems like a game. The voices creep in from our childhood like prankster guardian spirits….The voices that reach us outer space aren’t just redesigning the childhood island…they’re teaching us our reality with the teacher’s rod…they’re the voices of real men. Some – to judge by the way they talk, by their moments of hesitation – are scared and nervous. Others control their emotions and maintain their composure with impressive coldbloddness. The tape rolls and little by little the voices become familiar, as if they’s always been there, talking to us, threatening us.”Yes always there, pervasive, invasive, rolling with them, rolling in them, rolling rolling rolling. Crawling, crawling, crawling, Singing, singing singing. And here in Michel’s piece, in the ”background light” (back- lit) of the extremely excruciating is this ever present undercurrent of the carnivalesque and here Michel joins Lucinda Childs, the dadaists, Duchamp with an always wink nearby, but always with an eye colored with a little black drawn around the eye in a perfect circle. So then what does one exactly do in a “prehistoric ballet”, if this is to be an intimation of one. A ballet of low heights (much of Mercurial movement is found on the ground – horizontal dragging, crawling, whispers of singing), quick and very momentary bounds, and ultimately, fixing to find ways to walk it all off, sing it all off, crazy laugh  it all off. One thinks of a slow carnivalesque, one thinks of the constant hallucination that flashes quick, fast , and slow over again, washed across her face, in Michel’s character on stage. Mercurial often feels like a quick, then slow, then almost like not sure we have seen, whiplash. Jean Rouch’s Maitres Fous may never be too far, in this regard. The film where a secret cult of African urban dwellers, in the 1960s, absurdly reenact the absurdities and invented rites of their colonial masters.

So then what does one exactly do in a “pre -historic ballet”, if this is to be an intimation.The prehistoric ballet might first feed off look for a refounding of our most basic movement physical movements. The how of how we move, one might put it. Think of Robert Wilson’ s Deadman Gesture and his actress Sheryl Sutton’s “hour long” movement from dropping a glass jug of milk to stabbing her black son. Think of Clara Furey’s exploration of notions of “arriere pays” in her Untied Tales. Think of theatre maven Marie Brassard’s Monia Choukri and her almost sliding like movements throughout her visceral Peepshow. All attempts to look again “from scratch” at how we move. Dana Michel’s Mercurial begins as a slow drag across the floor…

Sheryl Sutton in Deafman Glance2Sheryl Sutton in “Deafman Glance”

Mercurial George will be showing at Théâtre La Chapelle until Sunday June 5th.

James Oscar studied closely under the Martiniquan poet Edouard Glissant. He has published as a poet Perch at Black Night, Pegasus Press 2009, Notes for the White Arboreal, 5X8 Press 2014, The Horns of Moses, Magenta Press 2014 recently performed and presented at MOMAPS1 in October 2014.  His work surrounds poetics, anthropology, and issues of “post” nation. His present projects are in cinema (commercial and independent), theatre and cultural criticism.