Five on MIKE / Fabien Maltais-Bayda, Clara Nizard, Tina Post, Asya Sagnak, and Michael Stablein Jr.

Dana Michel in MIKE. Courtesy Festival TransAmériques 2023 and Carla Schleiffer.

Dana Michel’s MIKE is a work about work—about working conditions and where work is and isn’t working. It also takes a fair amount of work to watch it: in its duration (three hours without a designated intermission), its form (a meandering set of unfinished tasks as object discovery), and its address (somehow as psychologically forbidding as it is choreographically candid). Through these three senses of audience labor, Michel generously invites us into a performative proposal that her artist’s statement says entails three “musts”:

  1. “I/YOU/THEY MUST TRUST” that we can no longer sustain current working modalities.
  2. “I/YOU/THEY MUST TRUST” that “the arts” provide an opportunity to shift into alternatives.
  3. “I/YOU/THEY MUST TRUST and believe in my/your/their interior experiences,” modeling self respect to marshal “helpful-to-others futures.”

There’s a lot more whimsy in MIKE than these imperatives might imply. Loosely named for her father, a lifelong hospital janitor, the performance has the distinct energy of an existential movement-installation. Existential because Michel, as the eponymous MIKE, shrugs her way through a meditation on physical labor. We participated in this meditation when Michel presented it at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM) during the 2023 edition of the Festival TransAmériques. In what follows, we collectively describe the different perspectives that Michel’s choreography generates, interspersing these impressions with conversant reactions set off from the margin. MIKE is now on tour, with upcoming performances in the Netherlands at the end of September and Norway in November.

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The salle polyvalente (the versatile room) at UQÀM is perfect in that its purpose is purposeless: like working for a temp agency, it could be anything and everything. A room rental directory touts the salle’s adaptability to a renter’s needs, which hangs, in part, on its gargantuan and retractable partition with a galvanized iron coating.

As we enter the salle polyvalente, the helpful venue staff offer each of us a dark, square moving blanket and encourage us to distribute ourselves throughout the room. Anywhere you like. And whether they’ve arrived in groups or alone, people seem to relish this invitation to the floor. It is dusk, and the festival is full and eventful. Those scattered around the room run to comfort: shoes are soon removed, lovers sit in one another’s arms, adults roll onto their bellies, chins in hands propped up on elbows. Latecomers sheepishly survey the floor for a space big enough for their person-sized blanket—think of a well-attended yoga class—but adopt the postures of deeply relaxed attentiveness as soon as they sit down.

Near the beginning, Michel disappears into a crevice, out of which she drags segments of the room’s partition. Not quite finishing the task of assembly, she leaves its massive floor-to-ceiling sheets at intervals: they form an imposing, yet discontinuous wall, something like a Kaprowian membrane, which sometimes functions to completely block Michel’s actions from view. Partitioning the room is central to MIKE’s dramaturgy, and so are the implications of the partition itself: an institution, and the materials, infrastructures, arrangements, and personnel that comprise its economies.

Michel’s interest in the plasticity of the body manifests as a virtuosic play of choreographic distractions and hesitations. As she untangles wires, fingers her phone, stacks chairs, organizes freshly unboxed blinds, and moves listlessly towards her next pseudo-task (each less predictable and productive than the last), Michel’s movement evokes something between play and work—never accomplishing anything at all, half-pawing at objects, half-working, half-dancing. One minute she is splayed on the floor, basking in the light of an office lamp; the next, she meticulously zip-ties the blinds to a row of overturned clothing racks. With each task, she both begs and voids the question: what is she doing this for?

A head scratch. A shrug. A mumble. It is by turns mesmerizing and opaque. Dance is a long digression in this telling, and yet like janitorial work, it may still provide essential labor.

Whereas Michel’s earlier solo works like Yellow Towel or Mercurial George accumulated gestures and materials on the body, making the dancer a slippery assemblage, the logic of MIKE is dispersion.  Michel perambulates, pausing near a metal coat rack. A single hand floats up, then falls back down—even this lonesome gesture is left evocatively partial. And if such aesthetic labors might sometimes seem lonely—the loneliness of a body being viewed—here that quality becomes tangible. Not only does it appear to flicker across Michel’s face as she leans on the room partition for momentary support, it also proliferates. Amid the toppled maintenance objects, several surprises are found. A “Für Elise” sound-bite keeps starting and being interrupted—like a funny little promise of lyricism cut short. Eventually, Michel whispers, “I’m done,” and just like that the piece has ended. Her deadpan performance is ambling and faltering in response to the objects that litter the space, as if to say: what am I supposed to do with these?

Dana Michel in MIKE. Courtesy Festival TransAmériques 2023 and Carla Schleiffer.

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Throughout MIKE, some audience members move between sides of the room to get a view of Michel’s movements, while others decide to stay put. And while this gradually amplifying motion might be seen to amass some collective shape, it is equally atomizing. Spectators are left to some extent adrift, asked to judge what sightlines matter, what trajectories to follow, and how much of the room’s advertised flexibility to adopt for themselves:

I’m a fidgety and spatially curious audience member and, like Michel’s performance, I like to be on the move. But MIKE has a gravitational choreography that pulls even the most firmly-parked among us into a kind of choreographic orbit. A trail of us practically stalks Michel as she paces the lengths of the multipurpose room at UQÀM.

Because the halves of the room are equal, I decide early on that I will stay in the half I’ve been given through its division. And early in the piece, nothing indicates the consequences of this election. Michel visits and moves through both sides of the room, insular and mumbling. In my half, she places and replaces a fan; she disappears into a store-room door; she visits a water cooler; she drinks from a cartoonishly huge liquor bottle. But soon enough, she visits the other side of the room and stays, and stays, and stays. Yes, she pops over once or twice more, ever so briefly, only to disappear quickly again. But despite my side of the salle polyvalente comprising fully half of the performance space, it is largely abandoned as the active site of the performance.

My back hurts from crouching. A stranger next to me offers a corner of their blanket. We’ve been trading them back and forth without tending to which one is mine or yours; we were all given one upon entry, but most of us have abandoned “ours” in search of a better vantage point. I accept. When I walk away to stretch my legs, someone else takes my place.

Throughout, I am always looking for a better view, trying not to miss anything, even when “nothing” is happening.

Early in the performance, when Michel moves between sides, some audience members rush back and forth, wanting to see Michel’s every move. Others are more patient, waiting for her to come and go. A few try to situate themselves for peeking around the corner of the partition, or, in a couple of cases, peering through the small gaps between the massive slats. For a time, one man’s attempts to peer through the gaps becomes its own choreography. But as Michel commits to the other side of the room, nearly all of my neighbors, one by one, pick up their moving blankets (ah, I get it: moving blankets) to resettle on the other side.

As Michel’s futile maintenance of the objects around her mimics the apathetic focus behind a day’s work, we, too, are invited to labor. We choose our vantage points, we ball up our blankets into nests and leave them behind. Even those who stay put become directors, set designers. Sitting up straight grows more strenuous as time passes.

As the sun goes down, my side of the room becomes darker and darker, emptier and emptier, quieter and quieter. And chillier—at one point I wrap myself in the moving blanket, a thin bit of insulation against a growing cold. There are fifteen of us left, then eleven, then five, four, three. I suspect one is taking a cat nap. Shuffling and mumbling are audible from the other side. Light seeps in at the edges of the partition. It is clear something is occurring over there. But I stubbornly imagine that any time now, Michel will return to the empty half of the room. She never does.

Despite the maximalist run time and minimalist audience comforts, there is no vying for resources in this crowd. MIKE creates neither a stupefied mass, nor a group of detached individualists; Michel’s performance of lonely attentiveness paradoxically extends out to invite choreographies of theatrical collaboration, establishing its audience as those learning how to wield attention with care (if they so choose!). While in previous pieces she has insistently avoided eye contact with the audience, here she allows moments of exchange—a comment, a greeting, a glance—before drifting back to the task that is all her own. As we shift, share, and cohabitate across blankets, we flicker between our positions as benefactors of a single performer’s labor—and fellow laborers ourselves.

Michel’s onstage labor is increasingly legible as labor—a theme in addition to a present reality—as it extends across time and gains the sort of difficulty we associate with endurance. I lean forward to her wrist not because she is there, but because I am curious. If she labors to sustain a space whose rules are invisible to the eye and impossible to parse, the audience labors towards attention.

Perhaps the most enjoyable feature of the piece for me lies in her gigantic white socks. The tips of her socked feet jut out, adding texture and humor to her constant shuffling around. It is a version of wearing one’s father’s shoes when you are four years old, evocative of some misfitting, some childlike instinct to play rather than work, or to proverbially walk in her father’s shoes (impossible, Michel seems to argue). And yet what makes us more adult-like than a stable job? What ascribes social value more than being a “good worker”? Which set of values is more socially rewarded than “efficiency”?

I am reminded of “bullshit jobs,” of shitty Amazon working conditions, or just of lazy, hesitant, outright bad workers à la Bartleby. Of course, Michel is anything but, masterfully staging listlessness and delay through an endurant series of self-interruptions and constant murmuring—never loud enough for audiences to really make sense of—but amounting to the kind of self-talk you might engage in as you struggle to build an IKEA shelf alone.

I could feel myself working to get into it, like I was expecting her to give me something. I was looking for a narrative arc or a character study but I got, after the fact, a critical choreographic sediment: the process of searching itself as a different kind of working condition. And with her third “MUST” in mind, she also begged the question, what are you looking for from me?

Once, just before the performance ended, I got up to sneak a peek at what was happening on the other side of the room. I tiptoe through my dim emptiness to the far right side of the partition, and I am astounded. The room is profoundly bright and crowded—with bodies and with objects. Metal clothes racks stood in rows on the far side of me. Closer, Michel inch-worms on her stomach amongst white window blinds, pushing them, too, into rows. It is ordered and cluttered at once. And so bright, and so full of people. A completely different world. I retreat back into the dark, waiting for the visit that doesn’t come.

Trading on the visual codes of a janitor, warehouse handler, mover, or stevedore, MIKE seems to both always and never be working. MIKE never really seems to be getting the job (whatever it is) done. Indeed, it’s unclear what the task amounts to, apart from some futile tinkering. As meta-commentary, it shrugs its way through the problem of the inefficiency of dance itself.

Dana Michel in MIKE. Courtesy Festival TransAmériques 2023 and Carla Schleiffer.

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So where is the whimsy in the era of the bullshit job? Janitorial work, facilities care, and other labor which reproduces social institutions is far from useless. Even so, what whimsy is there to be found within the deadening conditions of laboring alienation that Michel’s overall aesthetic points to?

At its most troubling, watching MIKE feels like conducting a corporate performance evaluation: less audience and performer than management and employee. She’s on the clock, she’s being watched, she’s doing a lot, but she isn’t getting anything done. In lieu of such a deliverable, Michel offers errancy: a choreographic errancy that elicits errancy from its audience, especially when I’m/you’re/they’re most concertedly looking for a task.

And yet, if Yellow Towel took the terms of racializing spectatorship and flipped them back on the audience, permitting an investigation of multiple and irreducible embodiment, MIKE sets its course not on the audience’s terms, but on the artist’s: specifically the artist whose tired exertions, like those of most workers, are routed by the absurd logics of large rooms and larger institutions.

Was I occupying the backstage of a building super’s own abode, abandoned for the public except for the briefest of private moments, a little swig now and then? Or (and?) was this the subconscious mind of the conscious laborer—dark, present, quiet, waiting?

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