Traumatized by Michelle Boulé’s WONDER and other Americans


Inta Balode

On April 3rd, 2014 I saw a solo performance WONDER by Michelle Boulé. On May 14th, 2014 I went to listen to Questions and Answers session with Under Secretary of State in Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel. Those two events don’t have much in common except that they are linked to the United States. And the one in May made me get back to the unfinished review/essay I started writing in April. I also liked couple things Richard Stengel said, which is little bit surprising because in most cases in artist communities we are friends with artists of any state and not friends with official politics of any state.

One not perfectly precise quote I liked from the said by Richard Stengel was: “We are translating America to the world. It is important because American popular culture is so popular that many people think they know America even if they have never been there or have never met any American”. It reminded me that almost all the globe is split into two parts – ones who like America and ones who don’t like it. Not all of those who express their attitude have American visa. Not all of them have seen and touched a living American. Anyway may be because of the popular culture, may be because of features of imperial thinking of American politics, and may be because of the national pride of Americans even within contemporary arts which is considered to be quite unbiased there is often some reference to the very general term of “American” – “this is very/typical/not typical American”; “oh, those Americans!”; “once upon a time big things happened in America” etc. Also because of the availability of the funds cool American artists turn into even cooler European artists once they start working in Europe. Some people say that many of cutting edge ideas which emerged in New York or other hot spots of the United States would have faded if not taken up by European artists who have state support and more stability.

Richard Stengel in Riga

What do I want to say with all that? Actually a very simple thing – I really liked a dance piece WONDER by Michelle Boulé and I wanted to write a review about it. I liked it so much that it became the most complicated review writing I have experienced so far. Most likely because of the power of a single event by an American artist many other good events linked to America sprung up into my mind. So the simple review about one show turned into the draft for the overview/essay/even a book which might be called “My American dance”, “American dance and me”, “My experience with American dance from 2005 till 2014”, “Ten years with American dance”, “Why I like America?”, “Traumatized by America” etc. I might write that book some day but the artist and the potential readers deserve to get the text which exists somewhere but cannot land because of the globalization of a critic’s mind. Before moving on I want to warn you that most critics are better are negative reviews than positive ones.

Everything I can show, a lot more I can share

That would be my subtitle for the solo by Michelle Boulé WONDER, which is her first full evening length solo work which premiered in New York and had “European premiere” in Riga, Latvia on April 3rd at ?ertr?des Street Theater ( GIT is one of a very few independent venues in Latvia programming contemporary dance and theater. Michelle Boulé came to Latvia for a short teaching/ choreographing/ performing residency as part of the exchange program run by “Movement Research” ( Two Latvians – Kristine Vismane and Dmitrijs Gaitjukevi?s – went to New York within the same program. I know they were happy. I asked Michelle if she is happy to perform her solo which was not initially a plan. She said she is. I asked several audience members whether they are happy with what they saw. All of those whom I asked said they were happy. I asked a male audience member whether he was happy because there was nudity. He said that it was much more than this; he gives 10 points out of 10 to the performance as a whole.

Michelle does a lot of intense showing of what she can do and has done during her colorful dancer’s experience. It gets to the extent of “yes manifesto” – yes to everything that audience might adore, yes to everything that is powerful and hold me in the seat (or might make me run fast and far). She just does it all, shows it all and asks – so what? She does  a lot to please, to show, to entertain and through of all that there is some distant and desperate whisper – I can really show and do a lot, but I have much more to share, so please – try to get my dance.

And here is the starting point for the nice and intimate conversation with every audience member which takes place at the end of the performance.


She moves around the audience seated in circle and does small, gentle, unpredictably changing movements while looking at each person. It lasts for a while, for a long while if we compare to all the powerful images and dances experienced before. Here is what happened before:

– walking naked with an American smile (why do I think that Michelle who is ¼ Lithuanian, ¼ French, ¼ Filipinian, and ¼ something I don’t know has American smile?)

– singing (singing really good! Some people loved that part the most and I was thinking – how can she do so well so many things?) dressed in blue dress, blue wig and fake-sad-eyes glasses,

– doing energetic dance (I could really feel the wind from the movement) with dress stuffed in her stockings,

– performing hula hoop tricks (the one where she jumps and turns and gets through the hula hoop looks like circus!),

– sitting in an amazing second position and having even more amazing balance (it is not that I particularly care about ballet but this made me dreaming about having this in ballet performances I go to see),

– shouting out “yeah!” to recorded “crucial questions in women’s life” (and actually other lives as well),

– dancing a modern dance sequence (in a thoughtful, concentrated, enjoying way which makes abstract very exact).

So next to all that changing in front of our eyes like in a kaleidoscope the final section lasts and lasts. When it starts you think what it will be, then you get it quickly, then you know it will last long, because she is definitely doing that with everyone. So it gets predictable in a way (I read a review where this predictability was criticized). But on the other hand the situation is absolutely not predictable because of the audience’s reaction. She is close to everybody; she doesn’t wear anything colorfully blue, just her skin, casual bras and skin of the long stockings over leotard. She is still in charge and control but the focus moves to the face of person looking at her. She is still manipulating, now even much more, but now it becomes more individual. It lasts a while. I am still the one to be looked at. I am still in the time before the personal event. When she looks at me audience laughs, must be because of my face or because of her movement. It takes a moment to think after the personal event. Did I miss the next person after me; did I partly miss the person right before me? Time to get ready, time to recovering from the experience – does it mean I missed part of the show as an outside observer and now I am hypnotized, traumatized and don’t have rights to review this piece? Might be, but who cares. Anyway, it goes on for a while. She moves further. I am in my time after meeting. I can understand better how the others might feel now. Some people smile, some stay serious and then smile, one women even starts hiding and turning away while laughing her shy laughter, at the end she looks and enjoys the meeting. It takes a while – one of the most beautiful, intimate, predictable whiles. No fear of sudden provocation, of smiling at everybody and vomiting at the last one. Or doing something else really critical contemporary arts would do – something which should provoke me. It is fun to be attacked as well, but from what I have experienced “hitting with the tenderness” as said our famous theater director Alvis Hermanis is also a very powerful thing. Especially if the person in front of you has been peeling off some layers in order for you to get to know who is the one on the stage talking to you?

I am sure that final section would make much less sense if the all piece wouldn’t balance between intense and fragile presence; between I do it for you, I dance for you personally and I do it on my own as if nobody is watching me. And this opening walk with frozen smile – naked body for 6 minutes couple feet from me, but deprived of any presence – as a hologram, a ghost. To over-poeticize I would say – too material to be real in the world of projections we live in.

Anyway after this long text part which were supposed to imitate the section of the performance I was talking about, I can say that WONDER might also look as not wonder at all. At a first, quick and narrow glance it looks so much like many of the contemporary work are, so much of how things are done. There is nothing special if you look at the form and tools – it has features of contemporary performance work which have became mainstream for us who watch it often, but still remain transcendental for the ones who don’t belong to the community. This performance has a potential to transcend the closed environment. And the reasons for that are my imagined and experience based characteristics of American dance scene – the ones which keep traumatizing each time when I meet a dedicated American artist. I have an opinion to lean on – a young arts management student coming from a very small town in far East of Latvia (Latvia’s far is three hours from the capital) after the performance wrote to me: “It was so sincere!” Do you hear a lot of that after shows of “downtown surrealists”?

WONDER, photo by Wah-Ming Chang

The characteristics of my American dance scene I am positively traumatized by are:

Shamelessness and politeness – making to believe there are no borders, manipulating, being socially critical, humorous and self ironic. At the same time caring about the message and no matter what is on the way there is still some hope that life is good.

Quality – in whatever one does, no matter how ironically and critically movement and tools are used there is still “old-fashioned movement quality” and even virtuosity. Besides that everybody and every body type has rights to be virtuoso dancer.

Presence – this is trendy thing and I see many good examples in American dance scene. Dying into the moment because there might be not next moment. Because there are many more hard working artists. Because there is no point in wasting audiences time while doing a show only partly connected to it, by doing a show and thinking about doing a show.

Power of illogical logic and body transformations – no matter with or without props and costumes but body can be and become anything and live life in the sequence of events which seem at the same time impossible and the only possible option. For me besides recently experienced WONDER one of the strongest examples is “Frozen Mommy” by Tere O’Connor, which actually was the first work I wanted to bring and brought to Latvia and I did it because of strong belief that this is something to start in order to get into contemporary dance (I got to know about “ downtown surrealists” case later);

Work and responsibility – not in a way that things look polished and closed, and cold, not at all, many things look improvised but there are not. There is no relying on – I will come out and mesmerize you because I have this strong charisma. No way! I think this is largely because of the funding systems. A very rare European artist dance for money his or her friends and people who believed donated.

Why I love America?

Because my shoe size is 11 and my mother’s shoe size is 12. And only after my first trip to New York we got to know that even with our sizes it is possible to find shoes which fit well and look well.

Michelle Boule in WONDER photo by Ian Douglas