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The beauty of Coloured Swan 3, suggests choreographer Moya Michael, is the way the work hopes for a better future while acknowledging a painful past. That also sums up the outlook of the South African artist, who grew up in the dark time of apartheid in Johannesburg, and now finds herself looking towards a more optimistic tomorrow in her adopted hometown of Brussels.
“Coloured Swan is just a bunch of guys moving around on stage,” Michael starts out in an interview with the Straight, and then breaks into laughter. “Actually I’m joking. What it is is a fantastical projection into the future where we are trying to create a utopian universe in which our bodies can exist.”
If that sounds hyper-ambitious, it’s not by accident. Vancouver audiences for the PuSh Festival will see what’s being dubbed as Coloured Swan 3: Harriet’s Remix, the production mixing hypnotically looped music, digital projections, DayGlo attire, and symbolic items like ropes and traditional African cowry shells, all meant to spark discussions about race, destiny, and world philosophy among audiences.
“Coloured Swan is kind of like an umbrella concept,” Michael offers. “A lot of people call it a trilogy, but I see it as more of a series where I invite people to my world, move around different questions, and try to get people to think.”
There have been three different Coloured Swan works created in recent years, including solos for the choreographer, and another, titled “Eldorado,” for American David Hernandez. All of them riff on the same ideas in different ways.
“Both my solos and David’s solo sort of dealt with our ancestral past, our lineage, and our heritage,” Michael says. “For Harriet’s Remix I really wanted to work with young people and think about a sort of future in relation to the past. There are a lot of visual elements that we use—visual elements and objects on stage—that have deep meaning or are symbolic for us that the audience might not necessarily grasp.
“In the show we talk about the ‘mother ship’, but we also think about the slave ship,” she continues. “For example, we use ropes in the show, and ropes were used on slave ships. There are these sort of morse codes where the performers use the ropes to communicate in a private language, drawing on the floor to sort of rewrite history in a way. And we have tires, which are very much linkied to where I come from—Africa— with tires linked to the rubber trade from the Congo.”
The past for Michael brings back complex emotions. On one hand she’s beyond grateful for an upbringing in South Africa that was rich on the arts front.
“I was very appreciative of my teachers in South Africa—I wouldn’t have been able to move to Brussels the way I did without them,” Michael notes. “My ballet teacher was like my mom. The tension was not knowing where you would go next as an artist. People were always going to choose the white people first.”
Reflecting back, Michael remembers a world that she didn’t always entirely process at the time.
“Everything in South Africa was compartmentalized,” she continues. “We were put into racial categories, with white on the top, then Indians, coloureds, and Black on the bottom. Black women and coloured women were really at the bottom because we were living in this white supremacist male patriarchal system. Those categories I didn’t really understand at the time.”
Even after moving to Brussels on an arts scholarship, Michael discovered that issues sparked by race don’t always have boundaries.
“I didn’t come alone—there were five of us from South Africa," she says. "I didn’t feel the culture shock at first because I was so excited to be surrounded by so many people from so many different places. Later on, I discovered there’s more to Europe than it at first seems. And then the culture shock happened, and the missing home. And, much later on, resenting that, in a way, you were also taught to forget your roots and forget your training back home.
“Contemporary and African dance was what I studied at university, but I’m also trained in ballet,” she continues. “The ballet was never thrown away—it was a standard at school. But when it came to the African dance and the contemporary techniques that I learned when I was younger, they didn’t really matter so much here. That got to me after a while—it was sort of like the colonization of your body.”
As she began to make a name for herself in Brussels, Michael became aware that she was viewed differently than many of her fellow dancers.
“When you are a non-white person performing on stage, you are the one who’s always being raced in a way that white people aren’t,” she says. “It was this sort of exotification where, on stage, reviews would use descriptions like ‘the sensual Moya, the spicy Moya.’ After a while it starts to work on you a little bit.”
And so, rather than get angry, she turned the spotlight on things with her work, including her Coloured Swan series, where she’s above all, convinced that something beautiful is possible no matter how painful the past.
“I’m 46 now, and I’ve been here for 25 years, and only now is my work kind of being recognized,” she says. “I’m very lucky, and very aware of my privilege as I’m one of the associated artists at the Royal Flemish Theatre. A lot of people will say ‘Why are you with the Royal Flemish Theatre,’ and some will say, “because she’s black’—completely diminishing my 25 years of experience and 25 years of contributing to the ecosystem of dance here in Belgium. So I guess it’s something that I still run up against. Yes, I am very lucky. But I’ve also worked my ass off.”
The struggle continues, making Coloured Swan 3’s longing for a mother ship and a utopian world seem not only real, but important.
“With the Royal Flemish Theatre, I’m very aware of the institution that I’m in,” Michael says. “And I’m bringing community into these places—bringing people in who look like me and who have never been inside these spaces. In a very sly way, I’m creating a platform with my work for other artists like me to become involved. To go through a lot of things, issues, and feelings together. To be seen.” -
Coloured Swan 3: Harriet’s Remix plays January 20 to 22 at the Orpheum Annex as part of the PuSh Festival.