American Realness

That Wild Inside of Dana Michel’s “Mercurial George”

By Ikechukwu Casmir Onyewuenyi

To begin, let’s cut to the end of Mercurial George (2016), the skittish dance-meets-performance piece from Canadian choreographer, Dana Michel. At the denouement, Michel traverses, several times over, the perimeter of the Experimental Theater at Abrons. Her clunky, heavy-footed steps appear labored, trudging along in syncopated steps that stress the contours of the space. At the same time, this jagged ambling is equal parts revelatory given the narrative arc of Michel fumbling about the stage, prostrate, in disjointed fits for much of the performance. Mind you, there were other moments besides the ending where Michel is upright: Around the midway point, Michel—complete with a fascinator, faux fur coat, squeeze horn, and bag of bread—snakes about with braggart affectation to Moondog’s triumphant timpani work in Stamping Ground (1969). However, this upturn in fortune is seemingly stalled at the end of the performance: Michel’s swank one-two parade turns into an explicitly recursive movement that hugs the marginal extremes. If we meditate on where Michel walks, as well as the manner, what do we make of said steps that mimic a merry-go-round? Do we read Michel’s circular closure as transformation or habit, progression or regression?[1] Rather than fixate on one or the other, Michel’s schizoid showing in Mercurial George is as much about the square peg in a round hole as it is about how we recognize—and reckon with—differentiation within repetition that operates outside the knowable, in a quiet place other than public and private.[2]

What is knowable, on instant, is that Michel’s performing persona exists in a strangely ordered delirium. Scattered across the dingy stage are a litany of objects—bags, empty or filled with rice, microphones, a black privacy shelter, turquoise colored dough, toys, cups, saucers and other kitchen utensils. By standard conventions, this scene registers as formless, a haphazard amalgam of trivial items. Animating this and that, Michel produces a territorial maelstrom—a junkyard somewhat akin to Robert Morris’ Untitled (Scattered Piece) (1968-69)—that flirts with disorder, but of a sensible kind. In one instance, Michel struggles to enter a black plastic bag, burrowing its expanse for knickknacks: A microphone emerges; soon after, a rice bag is stabbed, with grains spraying everywhere on the stage; and before her Moondog-assisted grandstanding, a bare-breasted Michel sits within this mess, goggles on, and takes a moment to engage in an indecipherable soliloquy. Her words here are inchoate, notably palilailic, and, at times, inaudible despite an interrogation-like spotlight shining square on her face. Random as it may seem, there is a self-indulgent quietness here: Michel speaks on her time; she maintains minimal, if not zero, eye contact with the audience; and the moments when we do catch glimpses of her face, it happens to be a photograph perched atop her makeshift crown-cum-fascinator. From this repetition of faces to her aphasic speech, Michel enters into a performance of disability, albeit one that sidesteps medical discourses that regard disabled bodies based on limits rather than capacities.3 [3]Add to that, the affective hold emanating from Michel’s disabled mannerisms isn’t one of paternalistic care, pity or even fear. Instead, questions abound like why these objects? Who is this character? How do we get into their inner sanctum fantastic with motion? For Michel, all this intimates at a black interior operating “beyond the public face of stereotype and limited imagination.”[4] More or less, disability was her blackness, her body, her imaginary, all navigated on her terms.

These interrogations into a different interior, as well as the performance itself, trouble what Delueze and Gauttari call a system of facialization that ascribes significance and subjectivity to faces in addition to the bodies, objects, and landscapes they move through and inhabit.[5] In this system, the face desires interpretation, a set of signs that grant recognition. While the attribution of meaning brings social visibility to the face and, in turn, the individual, for black hued bodies or people with, say, Down Syndrome, the inward turn to now develop subjectivity is delimited such that “[t]he way a person looks, [and] the things they do, become taken up as indicative of what they ‘are.’”[6] Aware of these restrictive corporeal codes to subjectivity, Michel latches onto Deleuze and Gauttari’s insistence to “escape the face” not via a primitive, pre-facial return, but by constructing “probe-heads” that take up different faces concerned with organizing “strange new becomings, [and] new polyvocalities.”[7] To this end, the motionless simulacra of Michel’s face fastened to her headpiece prods and pokes the audience, gazing outward while her character parades to the snares of Moondog, an experimental composer who happened to be blind. The axiomatic thread of disability in Stamping Ground punctuates the interior of Michel, allowing her “a space of wild selffullness [sic]” that “gestures away from the caricatures of racial subjectivity.”[8]This type of comedic play on race was at issue in Yellow Towel (2014), the companion piece to Mercurial George.[9]Performed at American Realness 2014, Yellow Towel saw Michel navigate a racialized envy towards her blonde haired classmates; as a child, the choreographer wore a blonde towel to emulate this hegemonic signifier of whiteness, their standards of beauty. If Yellow Towel was Michel’s embodied deconstruction of public stereotypes on beauty, then Mercurial George presents as a “locus at which self-interrogation takes place.”[10] That is to say, Michel, herself, noted Mercurial George was Yellow Towel under a microscope.” As such, the concerns of the public are secondary in Mercurial George, their gaze an afterthought; instead, the expressiveness of the interior was of utmost importance here. However, when one is cognizant of the gaze, of being surveilled, we often enter a resistant interior of silence that mirrors a “refusal or protest” that tends towards a withdrawn, absent, and still self.[11] Michel is far from still, from absent, but her performance bursts with a contradictory aesthetic of quiet that is—much like silence—inward, but, more importantly, abundant, wild, “watcherless”—carrying on unbeknownst to the gaze.[12] By not making an effort to engage the audience during Mercurial George, one can say Michel is not attuned to (or has already tuned out) that which is public—the gaze. Taking it further, Michel (courtesy of her facial stand-in) watches us watch her quiet inside as it basks in an inexpressible expressiveness that evades (outside) systems of signification.

While difference—be it disability or disorder—abounds in Mercurial George, the basis for Michel’s about-face constituted a sort of repetition, a “changing same” that materializes itself within a black radical aesthetic.[13] For late cultural critic James A. Snead, this tendency to repeat—to bring it back, come rewind—is the hallmark of a black performance practice built on “progress and a willed return to a prior series.”[14] Thanks to time, progress can become an illusion in materialist cultures; however, repetition thwarts this artifice by complicating time as this objectively linear unfolding. Snead argues that returning to the past welcomes the succession of cuts, ruptures, accidents, and surprises of yore in ways that risk derailing what is already in progress. But by making room for the unknown, black performance daringly asks the barbed, almost disabling, question: why not go back to the past, painful as it may be?

Coming full circle, again, to the end of Mercurial George, we now see that those spherical flows of movement from Michel’s character cannot be easily reduced to growth. Such a read presumes an accurate beginning. But in the trashed stage—object laden to begin with—we encounter an excess materiality (or mess) that contradicts this logic of accuracy. Even the cimmerian scene where Michel seductively dances upright in the privacy shelter: her speech is at its most intelligible here as she goes on about the frothiness of milkshake and whipping things (most likely the milkshake). However, the strobe lights fracture Michel’s fluid, vogue hand performance, immersing the stage in a disjunctive shimmer of sight and sound. No sooner did the strobe lights peter out, than Michel was slump on the floor, kneading dough, and struggling to place it on a table. Positionality, whether vertical or horizontal, did not lend itself to progress here; whether crawling about on the stage or pacing the contours of the theater, Michel remained self-absorbed, closed off to outside chatter and stares.

Again, on accurate beginnings: Didn’t “The Man with The Yellow Hat” lure and kidnap Curious George from Africa? From Yellow Towel to Mercurial George, the lineage of black (dis)quiet is evident, necessitating a negotiation of the anoriginal abstraction that gets grafted onto blackness.The through lines—childhood angst, historical violence—are there between the two works, but Michel doesn’t dwell on these connective threads in Mercurial George or force it upon the performance in ways too obvious. Instead, Michel playfully cuts up throughout her performance, coding this corporeal, psychological, and material violence against blackness into a repetition that “continually ‘cuts’ back to the start,” while also making room for the difficulty that comes with surprise encounters. [15]With this severing of black culture and place, cutting up takes on tenor of deterritorialization that easily extrapolates to the simultaneity of capitalist flows and schizoid affectations—a subjectivity that withdraws into self, only to then express itself in startlingly ways. The cutting up within deterritorialization moves in a similar fashion for blackness; the violent cut that persists and the subsequent invagination finds the black body repeatedly folding back on itself, generating a space of ingrowth for survival.[16]

Following these lines of thought, it’s safe to say Michel invaginated the Experimental Theater at Abrons—going inward and then out, finding every nook and cranny to revel in an abundant wildness and hysteria that was of her own design. It’s a wildness that would have pleased bell hooks.[17]But it is also a wildness that can bide its time much like Janie (in Their Eyes Were Watching God) waiting for that “something to [fall] off the shelf inside her” and having the pluck to go “inside to see what it was.”[18] This fall from stability, from what is known, is no doubt dizzying. Yet the beauty of Michel’s métier is how she negotiates this dangerous declivity—this need to fall in order to experience some type of authentic upheaval.[19] Though free-falling might be framed as liberatory, Michel’s haunting performance in Mercurial George channeled the discord of such a vertiginous feat, reminding us just how frightening yet necessary that quiet, inward search to live can be.

Ikechukwu Casmir Onyewuenyi is a Nigerian Australian curator and writer based in New York City. He is a curatorial assistant at Performa and the 2016-2017 Curatorial Fellow at The Kitchen. Onyewuenyi maintains an ongoing writing practice, with his work appearing in Afterimage, ARTS.BLACK, BLOUIN ARTINFO, Carla, and Performa Magazine, among others. He is an MA candidate in Curatorial Practice at the School of Visual Arts, New York.

[1] James A. Snead broaches this apprehension among certain cultures in recognizing repetition, even when view culture as progressive or regressive. At the end of the day, for Snead, difference doesn’t negate the presence of repetition, but forces us to question the gains in thinking about difference as something that we’ve experienced before. James A. Snead, “Repetition as a figure of black culture,” in Black Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (London: Routledge, 1984): 59.

[2] Reflecting on Snead’s “quality of difference” alongside Kevin Quashie’s aesthetic of quiet is revealing insofar as it affords a meditation on the interior space that Dana Michel orchestrates in Mercurial George. Michel enters an expressiveness that isn’t tethered to publicness, discourses of resistance, the gaze of the other/another, and this fiat of black culture to be known and public. Instead, her interior is wild, exploratory, playful, and welcome to repetitive gestures. The latter may seem compulsive to the public eye, but are simply Michel working through prior narratives. See Kevin Quashie, “Publicness, Silence, and the Sovereignty of the Interior,” in The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012).

[3] This idea of a performance of disability borrows from Michel remarking that she is “drawn to disability.” In keeping with this, cultural theorist Anna Hickey-Moody argues that performance offers new ways to be affected differently by the disabled body so that we can shift from medical discourses that organize the disabled body based on “bodily limits, rather than bodily capacities.” Anna Hickey-Moody, “Becoming–Dinosaur: Collective Process and Movement Aesthetics,” in Deleuze and Performance, ed. Laura Cull (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009): 161.

[4] Elizabeth Alexander, The Black Interior: Essays (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2004): x.

[5] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and

Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (London: The Athlone Press, 1988): 180.


[6] Hickey-Moody, “Becoming—Dinosaur,” 167.

[7] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 171-191.

[8] Quashie, “Publicness, Silence, and the Sovereignty of the Interior,” 21.

[9]  This coupling of tragedy and comedic relief can be found in the works of W.E.B. DuBois (i.e., his smile simply conceals his inner conflicts in The Souls of Black Folks, 1903), Frantz Fanon (i.e., Fanon’s 1952 essay, “The Fact of Blackness,” finds the political philosopher attempting to laugh as a child repeatedly calls him a negro), and Ralph Ellison (i.e., in Invisible Man, 1952 during his marijuana-induced euphoria, the protagonist is joined by an aged woman who laments, “I laughs too but I moans too”). All three, as well as Michel, turn to wry forms of humor before delving into a discussion of black interiority.

[10] Hortense J. Spillers, Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003): 383.

[11] Quashie, “Publicness, Silence, and the Sovereignty of the Interior,” 22.

[12]  Ibid.

[13]   LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s articulations on black music identified the “blues impulse” as the wellspring for the mid-twentieth century emergence of dynamic black musical  expression found in jazz avant-garde (or the new black music) and R&B. Jason Robinson, “The Challenge of the Changing Same: The Jazz Avant-garde of the 1960s, the Black Aesthetic, and the Black Arts Movement,” Critical Studies in Improvisation 1 (2005): 20-37.

[14] Snead, “Repetition as a figure of black culture,” 67.

[15]   Ibid.

[16] “These material degradations—fissures or invaginations of a foreclosed universality, a heroic but bounded eroticism—are black performances.” Here, Fred Moten roots black performance in invagination, which is a process of differentiation and, ultimately, growth that occurs when a thing turns inward or folds back on itself. Invagination is inherently cyclical, an endless turning over from outside to inside that precludes a unified identity. Fred Moten, “Resistance of the Object: Aunt Hester’s Scream,” in In The Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003): 14.

[17] “Wild is the metaphoric expression of that inner will to rebel, to move against the grain, to be out of one’s place. It is the expression of radical black female subjectivity…cultivate this ‘wildness’ as a survival strategy…[since] folks seem to be more eager to read about wild black women in fictions than to make way for us in real life.” bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992): 49.

[18] Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1937): 87.

[19] Cradling us in (im)possibility, Frantz Fanon began and ended Black Skin, White Masks (1967) with this sense of upheaval and free-fall. That is, Fanon bookends upheaval with notions of descent, declivity, or just the act of coming down. These words communicate that black bodies must fall to get back up and be. As an example, Fanon made reference to Martinique poet and politician Aimé Césaire who came down to the “very depths” in order to foster a “psyche of ascent” wherein black bodies are able to rise from the “chaotic rivers, seas of corruption, [and] oceans in convulsion.” From the stage itself to Michel’s body, Césaire scene of descent and ascent mirrors the anarchy of Mercurial George..

photo by Ian Douglas