Moya Michael speaks back to the canon

Door Annelies Van Assche, op Wed Jun 07 2023 22:00:00 GMT+0000

For a quarter of a century, Moya Michael has been navigating the Flemish contemporary dance sector. In her artistic trajectory, the Brussels-based South African dance artist questions her own cultural identity and the expectations that go with it. As a performer and choreographer, how far do you go along with the exoticizing tendencies of both audience and work context? Or do you leave those aside, knowing how precarious the arts sector is? In her solo performance Coloured Swan 1: Khoiswan (2018), the first part of the Coloured Swans Series, Michael sought a way out of that dilemma. This performance is not only a milestone in Michael's artistic trajectory, but it also raises broader questions about cultural identity and canonization that concern the entire Flemish arts field.

Moya Michael was classified as ’Coloured’ in her native city Johannesburg under the apartheid government. When she arrived in Brussels in the late 1990s, her goal was to become one of the best African dancers in Europe. While working as a performer in what she calls ’the white canon’, she increasingly noticed the subtle exoticization of her body of colour. Her movements as an African dancer needed to be more suggestive or sensual. About a decade ago, she began creating her own work with Darling (2013). This performance was an important step toward a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach. Working with Igor Shyshko, Michael wanted to create a pure language of movement that was explicitly non-virtuoso, at least not in the conventional sense of the word. She wanted to demonstrate her technical skills in a different, less ’spectacular’, way than what was expected of her as a performer who had an excellent command of Western techniques, from ballet to release.

While many choreographers in Europe at the time used minimalist approaches to dance, people seemed to expect something different from Michael.

In Darling, Michael and Shyshko deploy repetitive footwork with small variations. In their seemingly simple choreography, in which a split second loss of concentration can mean a missed beat, the dancers express their (personal) vulnerability. A somewhat alienating soundscape, in which both their pasts surface, accompanies their steps. Radio fragments and testimonies of the collective traumas of the apartheid regime (Michael) and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (Shyshko) merge with the repetitive movements that radiate to other parts of the body and become more intense, as does the sound composition. While many choreographers in Europe at the time used minimalist approaches to dance, like simplicity and repetitiveness, people seemed to expect something different from Michael: when she performed or tried to sell the performance Darling both in Europe and Africa, it was often commented that performing abstract dance movements alongside a male white body ‘did not fit her profile’. She was considered not ‘truly African’ nor ‘European’ (enough) by both African and European gatekeepers. Darling was a turning point for her, as it prompted her – now with Belgian nationality – to explore more profoundly the layers of her cultural identity and her positioning in the artistic scene.

The following year, Faustin Linyekula created a solo performance for Michael, entitled The Dialogue Series IV: Moya (2014-2016), in which this self-reflection was also present. Michael and Linyekula wondered, for example, how being of colour within different forms of artistic expression is inherently political. For Michael, it was a completely new way of working: Linyekula's creative process was very slow and involved many conversations about her personal history and the social contexts within which she navigated. This creative process marked a second turning point in her artistic work. After this collaboration with Linyekula, Michael wanted to ’deconstruct and decolonize everything she had learned before.’ Above all, she wanted to be able to be herself in her work, and not merely accommodate what people thought or expected.

After the collaboration with Linyekula, Michael wanted to ’deconstruct and decolonize everything she had learned before.’

Thus, her artistic trajectory led to the three-part Coloured Swans Series, which focuses on themes of identity and origins. The first two dance solos premiered in 2018 and the third piece in 2020. CS 1: Khoiswan, created in collaboration with South African visual artist Tracey Rose, deals with their own origins and the different layers of their identities. Michael’s experiences from Darling and The Dialogue Series IV culminated in an examination of her African ancestry. She discovered that her ancestors belonged to the Khoi and San people, the original inhabitants of the Southern part of Africa who were referred to by the colonists with a derogatory term such as ‘Hottentots’. That research gave rise to Khoiswan, in which Michael dialogues with her ancestors, with and through whom she questions her artistic working environment. Next, CS 2: Eldorado addresses the complexity of ancestry in a solo created with and performed by American, Brussels-based dance maker David Hernandez. The performance interweaves Hernandez's personal experiences as an American citizen of Latino descent with the historical confrontations between the indigenous people of Latin America and the Spanish colonists. Finally, CS 3: Harriet's reMix explores different visions of alternative worlds brought by three young, Brussels-based artists from the African diaspora, who simultaneously engage in a dialogue with their respective ancestors. In this third part, selected for the 2021 TheaterFestival, Michael collaborated with the multidisciplinary artists Loucka Fiagan, Oscar Cassamajor, Milø Slayers and Zen Jefferson.

On in-betweenness and identity

The sense of in-betweenness, which runs throughout the series as a core concept for Michael, lies at the heart of Michael's African diasporic identity. This cultural identity involves a multiplicity of identities in one African diasporic body and constantly varies according to circumstances. In the words of cultural scholar Stuart Hall, this multiple identity is ‘a positioning’ – a term that appears repeatedly in the many questions an artist must fill out in a project grant application. So, Michael asks, when do artists embrace elements related to their cultural identity? When do they decide to omit them to avoid some sort of ethno-cultural labelling? These questions are contained in Michael’s first solo of the series: in Khoiswan, she explores her in-betweenness as positioning and questions the social construction of identity.

With Khoiswan, Michael fulfils the expectations, but on her own terms and in critical dialogue with ‘the white canon’.

Moreover, Michael works in an artistic context that seems to present the work of artists from the African diaspora almost exclusively on the margins of a program, in a one-off line-up dedicated to non-whiteness, as evidenced by the 2019 landscape outline (landschapstekening) by Flanders Arts Institute. Such labelling reproduces the fetishist view of the artist as it advertises the artist's (exotic) identity. Fetishization can also occur in the choices of programmers and grant committees, when they expect from the work of Afrodiasporic choreographers a certain movement vocabulary (with Africanist qualities: e.g. ‘grounded’, departing from the buttocks, with stomping feet and fast rhythms) or narratives based on one's cultural identity (e.g. collective or personal traumas linked to one's origins). In response, she fulfils those expectations with Khoiswan, but on her own terms and in critical dialogue with ‘the white canon’.

Khoiswan presents a collage of personal stories and historical references. In a talk show, we meet Moya Michael's invisible Auntie Mo. In a monologue, in which Michael assumes both the role of hostess and Auntie Mo, we hear how her aunt expresses respect toward a certain Lacrimosa. Lacrimosa is said to have made it in Europe and only returned to her homeland South Africa two hundred years later. A sound choreography in which Michael taps, slaps, sweeps and caresses her entire body with a microphone gives way to delayed but elegant arm movements. A beautiful coat made of layers of fabric in different colours and patterns reflects on the black dance floor, making it appear as if Michael is dancing on a lake. Almost at the end, Michael begins swinging a howling tube. She produces rhythms with her bare feet and dances in circles. Michael's howling and stomping are mixed with spoken word as she almost seems to go into a trance before she disappears behind the curtain.

The de- and reconstruction of various elements, such as text, movement and images, lies at the heart of the performance. One of the recurring elements in Michael's oeuvre is working with text. In this respect, Michael follows a poetic, fragmented method based on association, chance and intuition. In this way she wants to distance herself from a linear and logical narrative. Text, movement, sound, video and costume are juxtaposed and influence each other. In a sense, Michael's collage technique reflects the layering of her identity that fuels her research.

Moya Michael's evocation of a swan with its layered and colourful costume and its reflection in the black dance floor. From: Coloured Swan 1: Khoiswan (2018) © Danny Willems

Ancestors on the stage

In Khoiswan, Michael raises questions about body politics, the commodification of art, the commodification of the self and (post)colonial discourse. For example, during a slow dance sequence, the fragmented text repeatedly refers to dancer and African American rights activist Josephine Baker (1906-1975), who became world-famous for her exotic and erotic danse sauvage in a banana costume. In this dance sequence, Michael questions not only the power relations evoked by the iconography of ballet, but also the fetishized view of the female body of colour. Combined with the slow arm movements, the layers of fabric on Michael's costume are reminiscent of a coloured tutu – the iconic swan – but they could also be an allusion to Baker's infamous skirt or the multiplicity of (cultural) identity. In the early twentieth century, US-born Baker fled poverty and ended up at Paris' Folies Bergère. In her performances, she challenged the perception of women of colour by theatricalizing her identity and using it as a tool for entertainment. Hence Michael's words in this scene, ’She was the exotic – a commercialised burden’ and ’she created a persona for her own interest’. In a sense, these words could also point to the struggle Michael herself faces as an emerging choreographer of colour, a struggle she did not experience so intensely when she was a performer of other people's work. Now that she is responsible for selling her own work, she is much more confronted with the unspoken expectations of playing out her cultural identity, Baker-style.

While people in South Africa are proud that Michael ’made it’ in Europe, the artist herself wonders to what extent that is true.

Another critique of the exoticization and eroticization of the female body of colour emerges through the evoked image of Saartjie Baartman (1789-1815), one of the last Khoi women enslaved by Dutch farmers in Cape Town. She was exhibited worldwide for her distinct body parts even after her death. For example, she had a small physique and comparatively large backside. It wasn't until 2002 that Baartman's remains returned to South Africa, where she was buried. Thus it gradually becomes clear that Aunt Mo was talking about Baartman when she spoke of Lacrimosa, who only returned two hundred years later. Baartman is evoked primarily through a shadowy scene behind the curtain. Michael poses there with a prominent posterior to the rhythm of an audio loop reminiscent of the Khoi and San click language. Through these references, Michael critiques the fixation on physicality with regard to people of colour, particularly women of colour. Are female performers of colour treated like Baartman, reduced to their bodies, to this day? This very present ancestor on stage reflects how historical knowledge and personal stories are constantly intertwined: Baartman also stands for Michael herself, and for all African women who have ’made it in the West’.

Three silhouettes of Moya Michael in shadow play behind the curtain. From: Coloured Swan 1: Khoiswan (2018) © Danny Willems

Speaking back to the canon

Michael, who is also trained in classical ballet, offers a response to ‘the white canon’ with Khoiswan. While people in South Africa are proud that Michael ’made it’ in Europe, the artist herself wonders to what extent that is true: ’Have I really made it because I have been able to colonise my own body into the teachings of the West?’ In Khoiswan, for example, one might recognize a reference to Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov's Swan Lake (1895) or Mikhail Fokine's The Dying Swan (1905). In the scene with very slow movements, where her swan costume seems to reflect on a black lake, she employs her collage technique to evoke these canonical choreographies. To do so, she remixes images of various ballerinas dancing Swan Lake with cave drawings of the Khoi people. In her movements, she alternates the ballet positions from ’the white canon’ with similar positions inspired by the figures from cave drawings. For example, when we see Michael in the fifth (ballet) position with her arms raised like wings, she links this image to a similar cave painting that we later see projected on the back curtain. The images of the swan, which Michael evokes not only in her title but also through her dance vocabulary, costume choice and stage design, allude to the uniform aesthetic and technique of ‘the white canon’ and the accompanying idealisation of the body.

In her State of the Union, Michael ignored the rigid conventions of the annual speech.

By connecting historical and personal narratives in such de- and reconstructive ways, Michael critiques the body politics of exoticization and eroticization. Through associative collage of sound, image, movement and text, she enters into dialogue with her ancestral knowledge, a knowledge that her work environment considers marginal. She reiterated this in the State of the Union she presented at the 2022 Theaterfestival in Ghent. There, together with Junior Akwety and Johanne Saunier, she presented a poetic performance in which text, movement, costume and song alternated as in Khoiswan. In this way she ignored the rigid conventions of the annual speech, making it clear that there must be room in Flanders for a variety of aesthetic perspectives. Moreover, she once again entered into dialogue with the canon by singing parts of her text to the strains of Mozart's concert arias. The interplay between historical references and personal narratives in Khoiswan, which is also present in her State of the Union, may be a way to puncture exoticizing patterns of expectation.

Khoiswan culminates with Michael in trance: she strips herself of the disciplined movement skills that have ‘colonized’ her Khoi body and grows into those of her ancestors. We witness this in her later work: both CS 3: Harriet's ReMix (2020) and Outwalkers (2022). In these performances, Michael continues her multidisciplinary approach and collage technique, but the dialogue with ’the white canon’ disappears. Uncompromisingly, she brings together many art worlds in this recent work. In this way, she increasingly reclaims her own narrative. In the words of Audre Lorde, ’For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change’ (1984, 111).

A longer version of this text was published in the academic journal Dance Research Journal (2021).
See also Sibo Kanobana’s text on Harriet’s reMix.