Shape Shifting: A conversation with Dana Michel about Yellow Towel

by Erica Dixon ~ February 12th, 2016
Photo by Ian Douglas

Photo by Ian Douglas

Shape Shifting: A conversation with Dana Michel about Yellow Towel with Rob Avila

Yellow Towel, the much lauded solo by Montreal-based choreographer-performer Dana Michel, makes its San Francisco debut this weekend. Riffing on a blurred range of black stereotypes, the piece has the effect of unsettling the specific in favor of an investigation of the condition of otherness—a two-way street in which the audience can find itself squirming under the burden of its reflex assumptions and interpretations. But the generous nature of the piece comes out in its rigorous hold on the material; a deep excavation that eschews the comforting certainties of character or narrative to give space and time for our own emotional, psychological, social baggage, which itself becomes an object for quiet scrutiny.


Dana Michel recently spoke about the origins and her evolving relation to Yellow Towel by Skype from Toronto.


You first premiered this piece at American Realness in New York in January 2014. The next time you performed it in the U.S. (at the Time-Based Arts festival in Portland in mid-September 2015), much had happened with respect to public consciousness and discourse around American racism and the systemic violence against black and brown bodies. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Ferguson, Black Lives Matter—these are just a few names in a long list marking this period. While not wanting to be reductive about the work, it is so charged with the history and ongoing pathology of racism that I wonder what it has been like performing it for American audiences through this particular period?


Dana Michel: For sure things have shifted quite a bit since the first time I did this piece in the States, in New York. The feeling in the room [in Portland] was very, very different. This can be geographical; for sure time-based; this is also, I’m assuming, the momentum that the work has gathered in the past couple of years. So there are these factors. And another immediate feeling that I have, I’ll just say: I didn’t have any kind of political agenda when I made the work. Not a conscious one. I would say that the political leanings were quite subterranean if there were any. And so, coming to do the work in the States, I was perhaps naive. I mean, I knew the kind of heaviness, the weight that can be associated with the work, but I wasn’t prepared. I was still quite taken aback by some of the feedback, by the kind of attention that would be paid. Only then I thought, “Ah! I am now starting to understand what the work has undertaken,” which I was not completely conscious of when I made it and when I arrived in Portland. I’m still quite wrapped up in thinking about it. Also, I just opened a new piece last night here (I’m in Toronto right now). So I’m having similar conversations. I make these things intuitively, coming from all different directions, and it’s in the response that I start to map out the potential for what I’ve done, where the work is landing. It’s a very wild and somewhat loaded feeling that I have, coming to propose this work. I take all of the feedback I receive, and this is really important to me. I see where it fits within the work, or within me. But, also, what is very important for me in doing this work is just to create space and not to take on any particular narrative or standpoint.


The title of the piece refers to a childhood practice of using a towel as a blond wig. I understand it comes from a poem you wrote?


Dana Michel: Basically, I was taking a workshop and one of the exercises was to write a poem. [The workshop leader, artist Ivo Dimchev] is very keen on writing poetry just for some sort of making process. So the poem that I wrote was a small, ridiculous poem about my hair. And I named it Yellow Towel.


Was this the germinating seed of the piece or was it more than one thing?


Dana Michel: It was definitely more than one thing. I think probably the very first step was I had taken a leave of absence from my job maybe a year before starting to work on Yellow Towel. I was sitting around trying to come up with how to make money, how am I going to do this? I said, “Ah, I love children. I should make a children’s show!” So I started trying to hatch a plan to make a children’s show. I thought, “I’m going to make a show about a half-Japanese half-Jamaican princess who is trying to understand her components.” Basically, I was just thinking a lot about my nieces and nephews, who are biracial, and who have very fair skin and very coarse hair. Often I sit with them and wonder about how it is that they navigate through the world. Not that any of us have super precise definitions of who we are. But I can sit here and say, I’m black. And this has a certain clarity. Not to say that “I am biracial” doesn’t, but there’s an obvious layer of something. And it’s something.”


A layer of uncertainty or ambiguity? A certain slipperiness?


Dana Michel: Yeah, exactly, it’s a slipperiness.


Yellow Towel began to emerge during a workshop you took with the great Bulgarian-born choreographer and performer Ivo Dimchev at ImPulsTanz in Vienna. Can you describe a little of that process? While audiences are inclined to bring meanings and interpretations to every facet of the composition—the all-white surfaces and objects, for example, against which you the performer or starkly set off—the choices made along the way may have had a variety of motivations.


Dana Michel: Sure, I acknowledge subconscious decisions that drove me to all sorts of different choices. But surface-wise… Well, first of all, in Ivo’s workshop—this is a big one—he had these horse stable-like cabins made for each of us. I think we were fifteen people in the workshop. He had them constructed in order to give us our own studio space, a private booth out of white muslin. So we were each in a ten-by-ten-foot box, in these white psychiatric units. [laughs] That’s where I started making this work, inside of this box. When the first festival that produced the piece was asking, “What is your scenography?” the first logical thing was to just reproduce this kind of environment that I was in when I started to make it. So this is where the white floor and the white curtains came from. There’s also the fact that I’m OCD and I compulsively color group. So once I’ve started with a color then I just compulsively continue. It helps to smooth things out in my brain.


In what ways are you relating to Yellow Towel these days?


Dana Michel: I’m having a thought about when I made the piece. The premiere was in 2013 [in Montreal]. The first time I did it again was in New York in January 2014. I remember trying to look at it again. It was crazy. I thought I can’t possibly do this again. I made this situation; I lived in it; it’s over. I don’t understand how to do it again. It seems not something to rehearse. It just didn’t make any sense. Then it happened. And I said, “Ah, yes. It’s breathing!” It’s a kind of organism, and of course I can live in it again because there are a trillion things that are shifting all the time. Now I’m in a place where absolutely every time I do it a hundred new doors open. There are still all kinds of journeys to go on. Every time I come out of it I’m in a different place, I’m having a different reaction. Of course, again, different audiences, different cities, different times—yeah, it’s definitely still breathing. Quite early on I realized that this work is beyond me. I’m not saying that from any hyper-spiritual, hyper-ego place. It’s just quite clear it’s not just me and my little thing that I made. Now I feel like I’m following her around. I’m having a conversation with the work. I’m just trying to see, “So, where’s my place inside of you today?” The angles keep shifting. They’re still shifting. I’m very curious to see what it will be in February in America.


You’re more than your money

by Erica Dixon ~ December 1st, 2015

As you may or may not know, today is Giving Tuesday. A day where we can repent with our dollar, and generate enough warm fuzzies to obliterate any feelings around what we do with our money every other day of year.

Another day where the forces of mass communication can commodify, essentialize, and spin yet another aspect of our lives: our right to community participation.

Giving Tuesday is giving us at CounterPulse a moment to reflect. We reject the notion that philanthropy is something that can be commodified and compartmentalized into a single day of the year. Yet, we, like most nonprofits this time of year, are entering our annual giving campaign. We literally can’t do what we do without you, and still we know that your role at CounterPulse is more than your #donation. You are an essential part of our community if you’ve come to our shows, if you’ve cared about what we do, if you’ve volunteered your time, if you’ve joined the conversation.

So, where does that leave us? We’re calling it like we see it: participating while rejecting. This is critical engagement.

Our ask: make a donation to CounterPulse this December, and all year, in whatever way you can, in as many ways as it makes sense for you. We need your time. We need your voice. We need your art. We need your butt in a seat at our shows. We need your Facebook “likes,” your volunteer time, your praise, your engagement, your criticisms, your stories – and yep, we need your money.

So here it is:

Donate >>

Email to find out about volunteering opportunities >>

Share our #youremorethanyourmoney post on Facebook >>

Buy a ticket to see Gravity or Eisa Jocson later this month >>

Email to learn about more ways your voice can support CounterPulse >>

Community is invaluable.


Philanthropy etymologically means “love of humanity” in the sense of caring, nourishing, developing and enhancing “what it is to be human” on both the benefactors’ and beneficiaries’ parts.

“Philanthropy.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.


Interview For Our Upcoming Premiere

by Liz Tenuto ~ November 8th, 2015

A colleague of mine, Katharine Hawthorne, came to our recent work-in-progress showing and asked me a few questions about the work. Below is our interview that discusses why I am making a musical and how working during CounterPulse’s construction has influenced the piece:

Interview: Liz Tenuto/Dance and a Half

This Year is Different: A Self-Help Musical

What is your favorite moment or section in the piece?

My favorite aspect of the piece are the songs. I love how they carry the narrative of the piece forwards while zooming in to develop a moment or character. Creating these songs has been a departure and risk for me, which has been exhilarating.

How did working in the 80 turk space shape and affect this piece (or not)?

I’m a self-help junkie and have wanted to create a piece about the theme of self-improvement for a while. When I heard CounterPulse was upgrading to a new theater, I thought that this was the opportune moment to present this idea because the theme of the piece is so well paired with the renovation that CounterPulse is undertaking. We actually have never rehearsed in 80 Turk although I have been very impacted and influenced by their construction process. The musical we created reveals the demolition and destruction that has to be done before renovation happens. It also acknowledges the universality of struggle and trauma while illuminating the openness and strength found after reconstruction.

What was the creative process like? Did you write most of the text and the songs before working with the dancers or in collaboration with them?

The process has been very collaborative. I wrote 2 of the song lyrics with the performers and 1 of the song lyrics with Ben, the composer for the piece.

As a director I really believe that the collaborators have to be involved in creating the material to feel connected to it. We started the process in one-on-one rehearsals. Our first task was to write ourselves a letter identifying what our inner work is and what we’d like to change about ourselves in the next year. From there, we chose one aspect of ourselves to focus on for creating the material for the show. All of the movement vocabulary and concepts have been generated through a multi-step process of instigation→ translation → reflection → revision → composition → revision → reflection, etc. It could be a never ending conversation…Our collective aim for this work is to create vulnerable material that is universal and to research our fears and move on from them.

What are some of your biggest influences and inspirations?

Artistically, I am influenced by people who take big risks and are unapologetically themselves. I am inspired by people who are pioneers and trailblazers, by people who open up a whole new avenue of expression or way of working. Diana Vreeland. Christopher Guest. Crystal Pite. Prince. Josephine Baker.

The piece is billed as a musical about self-help. What drew you to work in this form?

I LOVE musicals. In my fantasy world, we would fluidly fall into choreographed song and dance all the time during the day with both friends and strangers. Additionally, the performers in the cast are incredibly versatile and I wanted to create the piece in a format that would highlight their strengths.

You describe the piece as “maximalist surrealist” (maybe I am making this up? I remember reading this language somewhere but now I can’t locate it). I am curious about how this style is translated through the body – what does it mean to make a maximalist surrealist dance?

You are not making that up..yes, the piece is described as “maximalist surrealist” which is a term that came from CounterPulse. I don’t know how it emerged or what it means to them and that is ok! From my end, I’d say that the deeper I have gotten into speaking with my body the more flexible my mind has become. There is some VERY bizarre imagery thrown around in professional level dance class and I absolutely love being exposed to it and trying it. This training has opened me up to be able to blend a technical and surreal mind/body state. This no doubt influences my lens on the world–I am constantly imagining “what if…?”

The piece also walks a line of realism and in some ways is extremely human and vulnerable. What made you decide to embed these moments in the work?

To bring in balance and to reflect reality. When I go to a show and see incredibly vulnerable material, I relate to it and often feel a sense of relief knowing that other people experience the same emotions and circumstances. Art to me is about connection. It’s important to me to convey reality even in the theatricalized container of “a show” because here we all are, together.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

A choreographer! I’d love to choreograph for a Broadway musical or film.



Photo of Greyarea on Mission and 22nd where the premiere will be happening.


Important 80 Turk Update

by Erica Dixon ~ October 29th, 2015

Dear CounterPulse Community,

We have an important update regarding the 80 Turk Project. The opening performance of our 80 Turk Inaugural Season, will in fact, not be happening at 80 Turk. Due to sudden timeline delays with the renovation of the theater, our partners and friends at Joe Goode Annex will be hosting all evening performances of Hope Mohr Dance Bridge Project, Rewriting Dance. Tickets can still be purchased though our site here >>

We firstly, thank Hope Mohr and her collaborators for their graciousness in navigating through the unforeseen challenges of transitioning to our new location at 80 Turk Street.

As with all construction projects there have been delays due to myriad complications in the build out. On Monday of this week the timeline slipped yet again due to an issue with PG&E that held up other vital progress.

We regret any inconveniences this has brought our audiences and our season artists. However, we are continually awed by the grit and hard work our community puts forth and their willingness to rally with us when faced with adversity.

CounterPulse is experimenting in the unknown. We’re piloting a new process of stabilizing grassroots arts in a changing city. The structure of this process is a first not just for us, but for our funders, our stakeholders, and you. You’re on this ride with us, and we thank you.

At this point, our construction crews believe there is no reason to doubt any further venue changes for later season artists.

We can’t wait to welcome you to our new building.

In Collaboration,
The CounterPulse Team


Friends, Family, Patrons, Artists and Our New Home

by James Fleming ~ October 21st, 2015

Executive Director, Tomás Riley, working with staff and volunteers to paint our new theater space!

As we enter into the Inaugural Season at our new home on 80 Turk Street, we feel as if coming home from a long journey. The building has not been an easy project – from rallying multi-million dollar support to aligning ourselves to a new neighborhood, while maintaining a stronger than ever focus on grassroots, community-facing programming – our scrappy team is ready to once again to focus on the art-making.

In times when Bay Area narratives surrounding art and real estate are troubling, we see this moment as an intensely positive move for local art. Organizations and individuals, large and small, have rallied around this project, and it’s now time for us to turn square footage into living, breathing performance. Get ready, because our next year of programming will show the Bay Area that our artists are dazzlingly passionate, talented, and full of life!

The 80 Turk Project will exposé an upstairs studio dance space, a state-of-the-art main theater, a two-story lobby for launching exhibitions and talks, an artist apartment for hosting visiting art makers, and an basement exhibition space for smaller events, rehearsals, and so much more.

Check our line-up in our 80 Turk Inaugural Season and join us in celebrating this new moment,

Signing off, your friendly neighborhood Programs Associate,


Thank you to our supporters and funders for the 80 Turk Project.