Michelle Boulé in conversation with Matthew Walker

ISSUE Project Room was first introduced to Michelle Boulé through her participation in cellist/composer/improviser Okkyung Lee's 2011 Artist-in-Residency at ISSUE. As evidenced by her collaborative performance with Lee, Boulé's layered and transfixing engagement with movement, light, performance space, and audience suggested she would be an ideal fit for our 2012 Emerging Artists Commission program, which sought to reach outside our normal sound-oriented range of focus to encompass transdisciplinary practices. ISSUE Development Director Matthew Walker discusses process, authenticity, vulnerability and texture in performance with dancer/choreographer Michelle Boulé in anticipation of her upcoming premiere, WONDER, May 30-31.

Matthew Walker: What was the gestation period of the work?

Michelle Boulé: I guess it began over a year ago with those little meetings I was doing with you guys when you were in the other space [The Old American Can Factory], and it has been super spotty. I did have concentrated time in the summer at BAX and also space I got at Chez Bushwick, and then during the fall I didn’t rehearse all that much...I would be back in New York because Miguel [Gutierrez] had his premiere, I was touring with John Scott and it was hard for me to hold onto the piece while doing that other stuff. So I kicked back into things in late January. The end of March 2012 is maybe when I had to stop rehearsing in the Can Factory. So I guess I would consider it, on-and-off, just over a one year gestation period.

MW: But you at least had some notion of a piece when you proposed it before then? Does any thread of that original concept remain?

MB: The notion of witnessing. That’s why I chose the circle and the authentic movement practice, which I tried to do with non dancers and wasn’t super successful. There’s something about looking at what movement can be, and I wanted to see it with untrained bodies. That’s just something I wanted to do and it seemed like a good way to do some research. Some of that has remained, definitely the fact that the piece is in a circle, from the practical reason of getting people to be able to see, but also group witnessing where everyone is a bit implicated; you’re not up against a wall. The first time I tried it, it was like, “Oh my god, it’s like a ring leader, I’m in the middle of this circle.” It feeds into the last thing I do in the piece, what happens with authentic impulse. The scoring of it is “This notion here, this notion here, this notion here,” so I’m digging through it as I perform it, but the footage of the material that I learned ended up being from my improvisation at 110 Livingston, not even the stuff that I did during authentic movement sessions.  But there are things I remembered, because I wrote things down about them, and there’s one movement inspired by my session with you that I do in the piece. This thing about witnessing and seeing is in the piece.

Photo of Michelle in "Long White Shadows" by Sean Clark
Photo of Michelle in "Long White Shadows" by Sean Clark

MW: Can you talk a little about the authentic movement sessions?

MB: I can’t remember how many I did...maybe 12-15 different people. We would meet in the Can Factory and do a bastardized authentic movement practice, where a mover moves with eyes closed and there’s a witness, and the movement is timed, the mover doesn’t have to do anything besides follow “authentic impulse,” and the witness just watches and keeps the mover safe. There’s a dialogue that happens afterwards, the mover talks about what he experienced, the witness describes what he experienced as well. It’s a dialogue to be in touch with what you're experiencing through movement with impulse and how movement does have a connection to later experience. The thing that I like is that it gets dancers outside of their training, like when I’ve used it in teaching or as my own practice. Because the trained body says a lot already, and I’m not always interested in what it can say, but it's also a part of this piece, the trained dancer body. So I continued that, listened to some of the conversations. It was very important to have this intimate dialogue with some people whom I had never met before, I think that feeds itself into the ending of the piece.

MW: Maybe knowing about the authentic movement practice is an entry point into my understanding of your development of the piece. I think “authentic” is something that got lodged in my brain and something I’ve come across in your interviews about your work with Miguel. That's been a concept that’s been important, whether that was something that was placed in my mind when it shouldn't have been is something I’ve found myself thinking about a lot during the performance, and it felt like there were instances of you encouraging the audience to be thinking about that and subverting or deconstructing that. There are a few instances I found to be interesting: for one thing, the notion of self-reflexivity seems likes something you'd address as yourself, as the performer, and encourage the audience to think along those lines. The monologue being an example where you hear your voice, an explanation, detailing a trajectory as a dancer from childhood to professional, I feel like its difficult to not initially assume that it’s you talking, or some version of you, and then it becomes more surreal and you realize it’s a performed version of you that’s fictional.

MB: The word authentic is interesting because what actually is authentic in the world of performance? We’re always creating something. The thing that’s interesting to me as I’m watching work now is, “What is a body conveying? What kind of self are we presenting or promoting or standing behind or sitting inside of?” I have that question when I see people performing. And, from a conversation I just had with Miguel, and from being in his work for a long time, what is the relationship around authenticity and sincerity, which is something different. But how does one play with that and subvert that? I just saw the Warrior Queen performance with Marina Rosenfeld and it was amazing because there’s one song about her husband dying on the night of their honeymoon or something, and she would go, “Ohhh my husband died!” and cry, and then the song would end and she’d coyly smile and say, “Thank you!” [Laughter] It was amazing! and I kind of love that she was playing with that. I was drawn into her performance and not the story...I’m interested in that. As I dig through the layers of my own experiences, I just feel a lot of things. I’m interested in going a certain way with an experience that isn't verbal or intellectual, and I don't think one can aim to create that specifically, but that’s what’s happened. I spent a lot of time by myself, went through the ups and downs of it, and kept asking this question of vulnerability. As I created sections I kept thinking “I'm actually not being vulnerable in this section, it’s another front.” So are there moments where that truly happens or am I carrying it and playing with it the entire piece?

Photo of Michelle and Lindsay Clark in "Hello I need You" by Ian Douglas
Photo of Michelle and Lindsay Clark in "Hello I Need You" by Ian Douglas

MW: The idea of vulnerability is something I was thinking about as a disguise or as the character that was played, and it felt to me like there were a few ways vulnerability was played. The way you opened the piece, in the traditional sense of someone being vulnerable in their body, but in some ways that felt like the most...

MB: ...staged?

MW: Yes, the most staged and least emotional section. In contrast, when you were in the blue dress, despite that being the most costumed and extravagant disguise, that section felt like the most emotionally present and immediate. So that’s another way I was thinking about disguise.

MB: The vulnerability for me came through the process of making the piece and making the decisions and saying, “Fuck, I think I have to do this because this is what the piece is calling for.” Art-making is a super vulnerable practice, which is new to me too. In the practice of making work there is always a negotiation with how much I let myself be vulnerable as I make and how much I am always just creating something. Not that those are on a two way dichotomous street but...  Part of it comes from this training working with Deborah Hay of, “How do you hold a piece?” In her work, you have to stay in this process of question-asking, and she would call you out when you dropped the question, so you’re always in this heightened state of awareness. That’s this physical performative training I had working with her, and I would tune into that sometimes and I’d play with it, too. But because I’m playing with it, it’s staged and conscious. So is it really vulnerable? Yes, it is sometimes! [Laughter]

Photo of Michelle and Lindsay Clark in "Hello I need You" by Ian Douglas
Photo of Michelle and Lindsay Clark in "Hello I Need You" by Ian Douglas

MW: Maybe it was when you were interviewed in BOMB talking about the work you did at The Kitchen as a dance-in-process, you said something like, “When I enter into the limitations that someone else gives me, I feel like I can get really specific.” But you said you were having a hard time giving those limitations to yourself. I had a fleeting thought that the sections are incredibly different in terms of vocabulary and style and I almost imagine you embodying an array of choreographic characters in a similar way to how you were embodying different personae. Is that something you thought about or a way you tried to solve the problem?

MB: No, persona feels like one of the last things that popped into mind for me. I wouldn’t have thought of calling it that until maybe the last month of writing the piece’s description. I did think about going through layers, but personas have been evolving more recently. I want to tie this into you asking about limitations, because this did seem like a pretty open playing field, and part of the way I work (at least on this solo) is I would just turn the camera on at the Can Factory, start the timer, and there was so much material generated for this piece. I know that that happens, people talk about having a shadow piece to the one you created. I would video tape and then just look at the video and intuitively take out what was interesting to me, but there wasn't a real decision about even the type of movement that I was wanting, I just started collecting these pods. The next piece I’m going to make I already have ideas about the vocabulary and design of it, much clearer than this one. Knowing that it was just me, but having no idea where it was going to go so I didn't really have limitation and was just creating different sections and seeing what would stick around. I had Levi [Gonzalez] come in, not as an official dramaturg, but from time to time so I could show him things and talk about them, and certain things just lingered. Even the music, I would hear a song and add it to my “new solo” playlist and play the songs in rehearsal. Somehow these are just the ones that made it. I don’t even remember where the Hazel song came from, maybe I had it for dance class and...I think that’s a thing, working by myself I don’t have someone to remind me of how things developed.

MW: As you generated this massive amount of material and ended up with fragments that lingered, how did you approach the idea of form and structure as it started coalescing into a piece?

MB: When I started trying the opening of the piece, it was a day that Levi came to watch rehearsal, and I showed that as the very first thing. I did it with my clothes on at first, and, I didn’t want to do this, but it was like, “I think I need to try this with my clothes off,” and then I showed him some material that came in the next section. Just because I showed it to him that way on that day it was like, “Oh, this opening has this kind of effect.” I toyed with moving sections around but they stayed in that same order, and then one day Carmine [Covelli] brought in a soundtrack and I tried it with another blip of material. Honestly, I don’t always know when the decisions were made. To lie on the floor and flop my arms and legs around came when I had three hours to rehearse at Chez Bushwick and I did nothing, I couldn't figure out what to do, I was just lying on the floor. By the end of rehearsal, where the ideas sometimes start to happen because there’s a time pressure, I was like, “I think this is what I need to do in the piece.”  The things that contributed to the form were some of the costume elements. Taking the bus on the Fulton Street mall to get to Issue to rehearse, that strip of real estate where all those stores are, leaves an impression on me and I love looking at the clothing and colors. There’s a lot in there, maybe in a similar way to leaving the Whitney and walking down Madison Avenue, there’s something about aspiration and ideas about beauty, and about class in there that is so strong and also has a history of judgment and value. You know, in The Devil Wears Prada, there’s a moment where the secretary comes in with this blue sweater, and Meryl Streep goes through this whole monologue about that particular color in the fashion industry and what it means.  That’s interesting to me in the body--the ecology of a posture or even from a sustainability model, “Do you know where that furniture came from or what its story is?” I saw a show recently and the way they were performing I kept thinking, “What is this saying? Where does this come from and how is it related to how we exist inside our bodies now, the history of that and where we want to go with it?” All of that information relates for me to the dress. There’s so much that’s said through fashion and through posture. There’s such a different approach to being in one’s body that relates to economic class, sort of a tightness or repression or a total let-it-all-loose, on either end of the spectrum. I don’t think I have anything to say about those things, but something about the plasticity about that polyester dress... I was taking pictures of women on the subway who were flamboyantly dressed, or things that were super decorated but in a cheap way. I found a dress at Goodwill and it was blue, and I wanted to work with blue, just an intuitive choice, and it came into the dance. At that time I also had heard the Evelyn “Champagne” King song ‘Love Come Down’ somewhere, and I put it into my playlist and it just ended up being something that got repeated. A lot of it happened by what you could call chance, but I feel like there’s a larger order that’s holding things together too.  Something I’m thinking about in terms of the gestation of it is, right now, when does the making of it end? It ends when the show happens, I guess.

Collage of rehearsal for CATCH by Michelle
Collage of rehearsal for CATCH by Michelle

MW:  There are a few references to just dance in the piece, moments of self-reflexivity like the Chic song...

MB: ...Dance, Dance Dance...

MW: ...and to the monologue of the young dancer trajectory. It’s impossible not to think about, knowing you...you’re someone who’s been this incredible dancer/performer in the community for a long time, with a long list of different creators. I know you’ve been developing work for three, four years?

MB: In 2005 I made a piece for students at the University of Illinois, I made something for Food for Thought at Danspace Project, and I made a solo on a student at University of Utah, but only because people asked me. In 2009 I made a little thing with Okkyung Lee because I was invited to do Food for Thought, and I’ve been gradually making things. But I’ve been super focused on the work I’ve been doing with other people.  That whole time I was also touring with Deborah Hay, and we were making Last Meadow with Miguel, touring with that and moving into the new piece. So this commission is the first time I’ve had concentrated time to focus on something, because during Dance-in-Process a year and half ago I was teaching at the New School, and it was like, “Okay, I’m gonna fit this in here...” It’s not a lot of time and you show something in process.

MW: You’ve obviously been working intensively on other people’s work during the process of developing this -- what pieces have you performed while making this?

MB: Miguel’s new piece...what was interesting is that in his piece my role is not nearly as central as it was in the last piece, so in some ways that gave me a little more free headspace in terms of still being able to think about this work. And then I was performing this duet I do with John Scott, a Dublin-based choreographer. That’s it, just teaching a lot, at the New School. Oh, I ended up doing a piece with John Jasperse too, that cut into my time of creating this, that took up a good part of December and the first half of January...it was a last-minute thing. My piece felt like a very separate space for me, and I think that’s why I couldn’t work on it so much when I was in these other processes. I brought that dress to a residency I did with Miguel in Florida, but I don’t think I took it out of my hotel closet because when we were working from 10am-6pm everyday it doesn't leave much time for my mind to really get into a piece. I would come back from tours and it would be like, What is this piece again?” I think the momentum really started to happen this year, after all of that fall touring and John’s show in the winter.

Photo of Michelle and Lindsay Clark in "Hello I need You" by Ian Douglas
Photo of Michelle and Lindsay Clark in "Hello I Need You" by Ian Douglas

MW: It feels like in this more large-scale work there are explicit references to your history as a performer, which is of course unavoidable as that’s what your history has been. But there’s a conscious choice to reference that.

MB: Totally, and for the longest time I would say to Levi, “I don't want this piece to be about me,” and then I put this autobiographical text into the piece. I resisted it, and in a sense it’s not really about me, just me as material.  And the dance thing, I think again because it was me in the studio with a pretty open idea and looking at movement, and going back to authentic movement, what does it mean to have this information as a dancer? That was a big question for me in the proposal that I wrote when I was looking at this piece. All the things we project onto the dance, the trope of this difference of level, the glorified dancer. We're not on raised stages so much anymore, but that was the case before. How does all this relate to a body that doesn't have this information? And maybe I don’t need to keep asking that? As I continue making, maybe I can now accept it on another level. It’ll be interesting to see as I go into this next piece these things that feel much more formal, how these other ideas will be the jumping off point, rather than me, me as a mover, me as a trained dancer. Dancing, and explicitness.  And again, that was because I had this residency at BAX and there was a time when I was too sick to move around and dance, but because I had this free space, that’s what came up. I wrote a lot during this piece too, that’s been one of my practices in the studio, and that text just came out. I did a pilates session with a woman this summer and she was like, “Great, Michelle!” when I did something really nicely and I could feel my body be like “BING!” It was a magnet to the word somehow, all my hair stood on end and my body lit up in response to that word. I didn't grow up with parents who pushed me in school or anything, but it was funny for me to observe that while I was making this piece. That led to figuring out all the different ways you could say “good” to someone. I was googling it and found this university professor who did research on this idea.  He had a list of ways to say “good” to kids, and I used that in the sound score also. So I am exploring that as a physical reaction and as something that I realized was a big part of my history too.  The response becomes a way of manipulating. From my reaction it made me realize how it gave me understanding; I translated it into this notion around power and how seeking approval can be related to power. I think we all understand that, everyone has sought approval from a parent or something, that’s just an example of how something that was a body experience lent itself to something I saw as a larger cultural or human phenomenon.

MW: In other interviews, you’ve referred to your interest in the use of text as texture, referencing both Last Meadow and in the work at The Kitchen you did with Lindsay Clark. Text and voice, your voice in particular, played several key roles in this piece and I wonder how that fit in for you? It felt like more than texture to me.  There was a specific meaning embodied, more than even a tone.

MB: Yes, it’s true, in that piece it became a way to set a tone and show a dynamic between two people, but in this piece I hadn't made any conceptual decision to use text. I did have one day when I ran into David Thomson at Movement Research studios and I was having a super hard time because I didn’t feel like anything was happening. This was earlier this year, I’d go into rehearsal and do nothing, which is common but important time. So I had a little meltdown with him, and he said, “You have an interesting voice, you should use your voice” and I already had been, so that was a nice affirmation. Sound and authentic movement is interesting to me and I like thinking about sound as another movement; that’s something I talk about in my teaching a lot. It’s also just a personal interest that I had in using the voice as an option, because the other thing about dancers (this isn’t so true anymore, especially with the work that’s been coming out this year) is that we don’t open our mouths. I have to remind people, especially young students that you can breathe, you can have a voice. That’s been something I've been curious about. It really hit me when I saw Vera Mantero sing a song while I was in this scholarship program in Vienna. She just burst into this song in Portuguese, out of nowhere, and I was like, “I want that, I want to be able to do that.” There’s something around that, that is very uninhibited and free and available. Those are things I want in general whether or not it happens through the voice. The blue color, this is maybe cheesy, but it’s related to the fifth chakra in the ayurvedic chakra system and it has to do with communication and having a voice and being able to speak. That’s something I decided to stick with in this piece.

Michelle Boule in rehearsal for WONDER, photo by Wah Ming Chang
Michelle Boule in rehearsal for WONDER, photo by Wah Ming Chang

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Michelle Boulé

Michelle Boulé is a “Bessie” Award winning dance artist, teacher, life coach, and healer who has spent the past 25 years exploring the relationship between movement, consciousness, human potential, an...
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