Belgium-based choreographer and dancer Moya Michael is very aware of the fluidity and complexity of identity. Born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, she learned this at a very young age—and it’s influenced her Coloured Swan trilogy.
“I grew up in apartheid,” Michael tells Pancouver over Zoom in advance of her shows at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. “I was in the ‘Coloured’ race group.”
In those days, she says, white people did what they wanted. And people knew that a boss would always be white and ranked above people in her race group.
However, she didn’t feel “Coloured”. It was an imposed identity. Moreover, she wanted to be Black.
“I realized, after a while, that my ethnic lineage is to the Indigenous people of South Africa—the Khoi and the Sam people,” Michael says.
She points out that that these Indigenous people are still “heavily exploited” today.
“So many things in that culture have been erased, like a lot of Indigenous populations across the globe,” she continues.
In addition, because white colonists brought slaves to South Africa and migrant labourers from different parts of South Asia, the country is among the most multi-generationally mixed in the world.
“But then we were all put into these categories and sort of had to live by those rules—very strange,” Michael says. “And of course, you’re growing up in it as a kid, so you don’t really realize what’s happening… You’re not really sure what’s going on. It’s not being taught to you at school.”
Much later, she learned about the magnitude of atrocities that occurred under apartheid. She describes it as “genocide”.
“Nobody sees us as survivors, which is very…weird for me, in a way,” she adds.
Video: Watch the trailer for Coloured Swans 3: Harriet’s Remix.
Coloured Swan developed in three parts
Michael studied ballet in South Africa. She moved to Brussels in 1997 after receiving a scholarship to pursue dance education at the Performing Arts Research and Training Studios.
Her PuSh Festival show, Coloured Swan 3: Harriet’s Remix, is the third in a series of performances exploring layers of identity. Through these productions, she’s revealing how imposed identities can influence how people move, speak, and sing.
The first, Coloured Swan 1: Khoiswan, is a solo show focusing on her own ancestry. This was examined in detail in a 20-page academic paper, “Coloured Swan: Moya Michael’s Prowess in the Face of Fetishization in European Dance”, by Ghent University professor Annelies Van Assche.
“Notably, she was not regarded as a ‘real African’ by African and European gatekeepers alike, which to her remains an important part of her identity,” Van Assche writes in the paper, which was published Dance Research Journal last year. “The frustration of not being associated with the African continent led to the investigation into her African origins.”
Van Assche notes that her ancestors from the Khoi and San people were “the original and indigenous inhabitants of the southern part of Africa who were labelled by the derogatory term ‘Hottentots’ by the settlers”.
“To this day, these people are fighting for recognition of their existence as a people,” the academic adds. “This research gave rise to Khoiswan, in which Michael encounters her personal and historical ancestors, with and through whom she critically questions her artistic context.”
Symbols appear on-stage
In Coloured Swan 2: Eldorado, American dancer David Hernandez performs a solo that touches on his heritage.
Meanwhile, Coloured Swan 3: Harriet’s Remix features four biracial performers of African ancestry—rapper and electronic music producer Loucka Fiagan, MC and dancer Milo Slayers, and performer and audiovisual artist Oscar Cassamajor, and dancer, DJ, and sound designer Zen Jefferson.
The PuSh Festival website describes it as having “the variety and eye-catching flashiness of a splendid carnival”. In addition, it’s called a “party for the mind”. It has been performed in Nigeria and Norway, but never before in North America.
“I wanted to focus on how we can think of our bodies within the future,” Michael says. “There’s a sort of symbolism in there. My work is never literal.”
Moreover, this show integrates dance, text, singing, sound, and video in a wildly colourful presentation featuring a “Mothership”. The set includes rope and tires, which carry historical meaning in Africa. Ropes, of course, are linked to slavery. Furthermore, tires have been used in extrajudicial necklacing executions.
Michael’s show also has many masks made of cowry shells.
“Cowries used to be currency,” she explains. “It was used to buy slaves, for example. But today, it represents wealth.”
For her part, Michael is very conscious of the fetishization of Afrodiasporic dance artists in Europe. When she first moved to Belgium and later worked in England, she found it very disorienting.
Then, she decided to reclaim this as part of her voyage to change the dynamic between Black dancers and white audiences.
“I was like Josephine Baker with the piece that she does with all the bananas—‘You want exotic? I’m going to give you exotic!’ ” she declares.
In fact, she even referred to Josephine Baker in her solo Coloured Swan !: Khoiswan.
Addressing the white gaze
In the academic paper, Van Assche devotes a great deal of attention to Michael’s transformation. Assche writes about how Michael “gradually started to notice the subtle exoticization of her body” after arriving in Europe as a dancer.
“Although it was never very explicit, it would sometimes be intimated that her movements be more suggestive, more sensual,” Van Assche states. “As she states, her body was ‘pushed into a frame to fit the white gaze’.”
Michael tells Pancouver that she’s now creating works for people who came before her. And she says that this entails “shutting out the sort of white gaze upon Black or Brown bodies”.
“Performing in these sort of spaces, we are always the ones that are ‘raced’,” Michael says.
In addition, she believes that white people don’t often think about their own race. In response, she addressed this in a keynote speech to the cultural sector in Flanders. She delivered it in the dark so that the audience could consider Blackness in a more visceral way.
“I am grappling with all of these questions—trying to view my body inside of these spaces,” Michael says.
The PuSh Festival presents Moya Michael / Anaku & KVS’s Coloured Swan 3: Harriet’s Remix at the Orpheum Annex from January 20 to 22. For more information and tickets, visit the website. Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.