Living a dancer’s life: Ottawa’s Dana Michel returns home as first Visiting Dance Artist at NAC

Dana Michel. Photo: Dany Pepin

Ottawa native Dana Michel is the first choreographer to be a Visiting Dance Artist at the NAC, but if you had met her when she was a student at Hillcrest High School you might not have thought she would end up living and working in Montreal as a dancer.

Instead you might have expected Michel would become an accountant, pursuing a career in business and playing touch football on the side.

Sometimes your heart takes you to places your brain can’t imagine.

In an interview she talked about her life in dance and what it means to be “the guinea pig” for this new program designed “to support the development of new choreographic voices in Canada,” according to a press release announcing the award. Going forward, one or two choreographers a year will come to the centre to work with the NAC Dance team and to research and create new work.

Michel is an award-winning artist. She is a 2011 danceWEB scholar based in Vienna, Austria and she is an artist-in-residence at Usine C in Montreal. In June 2017, she was awarded a Silver Lion for Innovation in Dance by the Venice Biennale. She is also an associate artist with Par B.L.eux, a Montreal company founded and directed by Benoît Lachambre.

When she was chosen by the NAC, Michel says she was told “they were wanting to support a dance artist in whatever I might need” over the next year and a half.

Typically a residency offers studio time, but Michel says this program is different.

“They really spent a lot of time asking what I really need. So I spent a lot of time soul-searching about what I need at this point in my career.”

What did she conclude?

“What I have been craving for the past few years is time spent on resourcing. I do a lot of touring and a lot of administrative work and there hasn’t been a lot of (artistic) nourishment.

“I need to spend time reading and writing. These are two things that I love to do and don’t have time to do because … I have a young child. I am a dance artist and I am a person who works with her body for a living. I have found that I don’t actually have time to take of my body.

“This particular program model is new. It has been quite beautiful to be listened to and respected. Hands down it is the best residency of my life. I already feel immensely stimulated. I have space.”

The residency will lead to a new work that Michel expects to premiere in May 2019. Her involvement with the NAC will continue until December 2019 and allow her to work on smaller projects.

Coming home to Ottawa to work, she said is “interesting and confusing and exciting” all at the same time.

“I had a different existence when I lived in Ottawa. I was sporty. I was Sporty Spice; I can’t believe I said that.” Michel has always liked to stretch herself physically including playing touch football in high school.

“After Hillcrest I went to the University of Ottawa and did a business degree. When I left town it wasn’t to go to Concordia to study dance, that came later.

“Everything I do, I do wholeheartedly. When I went to business school I was doing it. I was in accounting. All through high school, I was going to be an accountant.”

But after a year at uOttawa she found accounting a “little bit too stiff” and switched to marketing and human resources. After graduation she got her first professional job and “did not like it. I felt a bit like an alien in business so I moved to Montreal to change the energy.”

In addition to studying business in Ottawa, Michel was attending raves.

“I discovered electronic music and the party scene and I moved to Montreal to get closer to it. Also there was a guy. I was doing that and finally not feeling like an alien in life. In business school, I could do it, I could do all those things but I wasn’t totally there. And when I started dancing in the party scene I finally found myself.”

She started to seek out other experiences to make that kind of physicality a bigger part of her life.

“I started bumping into dance studios and I saw an ad for the dance department at Concordia. That was the big opening.”

The Concordia program at the time was allowing people without any background in dance into their program.

“It was a misfits’ program. The director was looking at the guts of people.” Michel made the grade at age 25.

“The year I got in most of us were much older than the typical dance student and we were coming from wild backgrounds.”

While at school it was apparent quickly that Michel was a free spirit who wanted to do her own thing.

“I really sucked in dance classes trying to do other people’s work. It’s in my nature. I like making up my own rules. The key was finding a way to do it.”

That individuality is what caught Cathy Levy’s eye. The head of NAC Dance “made it really clear that she is interested in supporting artists who are trying different things. I hesitant to use word experimental because we are all doing that to some degree. Maybe I don’t get programmed much in Ottawa because the scene is a bit conservative for my work to be shown here a lot. But I feel she wanted to support me and my work because she believed in what I propose.”

Defining her work is not an easy thing.

“I spend a lot of time actively avoiding being defined to maintain highest level of artistic freedom. When I do whittle it down I can say that I feel I am doing stand-up comedy without words, without a punchline or without direction.”

The work does tend to be dark. It is loose in form, she said. It is also not easily recognizable as humour on the outside.

“It’s very rare that people see what I am saying to you right now. Mostly I am seen as a really highly political, serious artmaker. I don’t deny that either. It’s all in there. I’m poking around at existence with the work that I do.”

“I’m talking about how my work is often defined by others from the outside. It’s not how I see it; that is not my angle. However I can relate to most of the things that are written about my work in some way. I am exploring. I am calling out my own relationship to the world and my personal history, but it’s unavoidable that things are said. However I’m not taking a pen and underlining them.

Dana Michel in Yellow Towel

“The piece that has propelled my career the most was Yellow Towel. That was specifically a kind of meditation on the fact that I am a black woman trying to make art and that it was never really possible because … we are where we are in the world. We are not anywhere close to racial neutrality.”(Yellow Towel was featured on the Top Five and the Top Ten 2013 dance moments in the Voir newspaper and Dance Current Magazine. It was also highlighted by the New York Times.)

“I needed to own it. I needed to somehow get on top of what people were saying. If people are going to deem this to be black art, well then I just wanted to say that first, do that first. It was an attempt at addressing that. It’s not possible to get past it, not in my lifetime.

“I had been avoiding getting in the pool and I had to get in the pool and see what would happen.”

So far she is still swimming.

The starting point for the show she is working on during this residency is sex.

“There are many ways I have been thinking about it. I have a huge long list of things that I want to study and focus on. If I was going to do a Master’s degree I would study sexology.”

Going forward she expects to continue to explore her role as a solo artist. Her projects are very personal and that means “they are easier to do with my person. That doesn’t mean collaboration isn’t important to me. I have worked with other dance artists that has been fascinating, but I don’t see it ever getting huge. It is really important to me to stay close to my material and to have control.”

Thinking back to 15 year old Dana Michel, that person “wasn’t thinking about this life. It shocks me every day. Being in Ottawa now is so wild. I had it all planned out then. Forty-one year old Dana has desires that are more energetic.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.