The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2015

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MAY 2015 Issue

A KIND OF IMPOSSIBLE: Michelle Boulé's White

Michelle Boulé’s piece, White, slowly emerges from what feels like both a literal and metaphoric darkness. It’s an extended darkness born of a long, unmerciful winter in NYC. As the city finally begins to thaw, we are eager to connect to something. Something of the body. Something of aliveness. Something of hope.

Michelle Boulé, White (2015). Photo by Ian Douglas.

Danspace Project
April 23 – 25, 2015
New York

As a performer, Michelle Boulé is well known in the contemporary dance community as a force to be reckoned with, but White is only her second self-made work. And so we find ourselves sitting in St. Mark’s Church, waiting with anticipation. The stakes feel high tonight.

The lights come up to reveal three dancers clad in Reid Bartelme’s perfect, white couture. The costumes create a kind of perverse high fashion priestess or witchy presence. The scene is a meticulously considered statement of both beauty and magic. Each dancer’s hair is fiercely stylized—Boulé’s is teased so that it frames her face like a giant, unruly halo. Her features poke out from underneath.

Michelle Boulé, White (2015). Photo by Ian Douglas.

As stunning dancers Lindsay Clark and Lauren Bakst stand motionless, Boulé begins a monologue in an exquisitely exaggerated French accent. She introduces herself, the dancers, and this dance. Bakst is up in the balcony holding a low-fi portable amplifier. She begins to awkwardly echo everything that Boulé is saying, with slight changes to her word choices in order to correspond to her own position within the piece. This moment feels like a demonstration of sameness, of near unison, while simultaneously pointing to the fallibility of exactness and to the ever-shifting realities of our subjective experiences. We are alone, together.

In her opening monologue, Boulé resembles a kind of mad scientist archetype with her hair a mess and her eyes wide with enthusiasm—her words meandering, vague, and esoteric. It starts with the mundane as she dutifully points to the church’s fire exits and to the restrooms, but it ends with an inquiry into the lofty laws of quantum physics. Boulé requests that we bring our attention to the presence of vibrations beyond our immediate sense perceptions. She reminds us that there are elements, gestures, and traces in this dance that may operate outside our dominant ways of experiencing information. Bakst, as the echo, is the tangible symbol of the unseen forces upon us. We are being invited as witness-participants into what feels like an unearthly experiment that manifests on multiple frequencies and in myriad dimensions. Perhaps we can open ourselves up to all these subtle undercurrents? In this way, White is attempting to perform a kind of impossible. And we are being asked to receive and believe in it.

Following the opening, veteran dancers Clark and Boulé begin a spaciously crafted duet against a harsh, static soundscore. A sense of chaffing occurs between their moving bodies and the sound, creating a palpable friction. As they traverse the stage together, it’s as if they are initiating an entire constellation. They are marking space like laying bricks for an invisible environs: a strange interiority made material. They inhabit their bodies with a slow, steady eloquence, a certainty, and a curiosity. Soft, tender, light footed. They are wild and refined all at once.

In White’s expansive constellation, Bakst is the satellite, the underdog, the Pluto. She has moved from the balcony and has been sitting on the Danspace stairs, watching, accompanied by her toy-like microphone. She then enters the stage and begins to wrestle with multiple cords that are haphazardly plugged into her amplifier. Her movement is simultaneously constricted and erratic. As she labors, the untamed microphone screeches. This is both her duty and her duet. She slowly brings the microphone to her mouth but never speaks into it, allowing it to sing its own feedback-verses as it moves through space. 

Despite its metaphysical intentions, there are some moments in White that resemble a high fashion photo shoot. Sometimes the piece rests on its aesthetic laurels, relying heavily on the superficially pleasing image of these three women soaked in soft lights. But in other phrases, there is more tension. For instance, the piece climaxes as the dancers silently perform a histrionic lip-synch routine, moving their mouths like voiceless string puppets as they slowly contort across the floor. It is a moment where we become hyper aware of artifice, of the act of performing. And the sensations that arise are unsettling, disorienting. As a viewer, I find myself clinging to these particular sensations because I want the piece to fully push up against its own innate beauty in order to explore the textures below its flawless surface.

In her opening monologue, Boulé proposes that this dance is “complete.” Yet I am left wanting more. I crave more time inside this bizarre world, vacillating between the potent qualities of the material and the immaterial. White contains multitudes of meaning and purpose that takes days to metabolize. Perhaps this is the beginning of much more to come—a very promising statement in Boulé’s ever-deepening choreographic practice.


Cassie Peterson

CASSIE PETERSON is a New York-based writer and thinker. She works as a psychotherapist by day, and moonlights as a dramaturge, essayist, and contemporary dance critic.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2015

All Issues