An interview with Moya Michael (dancer and choreographer) by Saddie Choua (video artist)
It’s July, and hot. I’m sitting down with Moya Michael. She is a Brussels dancer and choreographer originally from South Africa, and classified as a coloured person. “Am I allowed to say that?” “You can,” Moya answers. And she tries to use it as material to create something around it. Read on to find out why.
You are originally from South Africa. How does a dancer like you end up in Brussels?
In South Africa I studied both African and contemporary dance. Most dancers did commercial work after their studies because that was an easy way to earn money. I wanted to use my body and training differently. Plus, in South Africa at that time during Apartheid one was in constant battle with the politics of the land and the fact that white people were superior.
After my studies I felt there was no scope for me as a dancer because there were more or less two dance companies in Johannesburg and I wanted to quit. Then the opportunity to go to P.A.R.T.S., Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s dance school, came about and I took it. After three years of training I went to dance with Akram Khan in London. In 2005 I came back to Brussels to join Rosas where I stayed for a few years and then decided to leave. Rosas is a repertoire company which I really appreciate but I wanted to explore my own choreographic voice. I had a short moment with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet but I was looking for something else.
In the end you chose to go your own way.
Yes, to take risks, to stop being a machine and to avoid lugging from one company to the next, one household name to the other, my whole career long.
"As for identity, it is such a personal thing. No matter how you see yourself, the world perceives you as something else. So when identity or a construct is imposed, it makes it even more difficult."
How did you do that?
Gradually. A company is a safe place, and letting go of safety requires courage. But then I got pregnant. I had never felt a desire to have children of my own, perhaps because I grew up without a mother. She died when I was very young.
When I was about twelve, I visited Mozambique with my family. A girl of my age pushed a new-born baby into my arms and asked some money in return. I was shocked. I realised so many children grow up without parents. I decided I would one day offer a home to such a child. Pregnancy was not in my dictionary.
At six-and-a-half months, I began to realize and accept I was pregnant. And just when I was getting used to it, my body, so important to me, started going through a major transformation. I started swelling up, holding water. I wasn’t prepared, I was scared and I was completely overwhelmed. It was a really difficult period for me because I wasn’t able to connect with my body and the child within.
After giving birth, I was asked to do a solo in South Africa. I accepted, but it took me a long time to think about what I would do in the state I was in, the feeling my body had left me. In the end I did the solo anyway. It was then that my relationship with KVS began because the then-artistic director Jan Goossens saw the solo and invited me to Kinshasa for the Connexion Kin Festival.
There, for the first time, I felt a distance from the other African artists that were at the festival. In my strife to become one of the best African dancers in Europe, working with the best companies there, I lost my Africanness, my roots. Being surrounded by these very impressive artists also made me realise that living and making work in Africa really matters. While I was just playing out the Western card. At that festival I felt like an outsider.
How did you deal with that?
I had long conversations about it with dancer and choreographer Faustin Linyekula, and the idea grew to create something together. We ended up going to South Africa, where I showed him around. He wanted to know where I came from, who my family was, where I had grown up.
The Apartheid regime boxed people into separate communities: black, white, Indian, coloured, … Social constructs, that’s what it was. But the term ‘coloured’ was always arbitrary and abstract to me. Even on our original birth certificate, as a family, we were put into even more boxes, different types of subfolders of ‘coloured’. I am labelled as ‘Cape-coloured’. That’s a certain type of coloured, simply because my hair is similar to that of the Cape Malay community in the Cape. One of my brothers is labelled as ‘other-coloured’, and the other as ‘coloured’. Confusing. It’s an arbitrary division, a sort of caste system, a tool used by the Apartheid regime to exercise control. So, when you are young and innocent, you think that’s just the way things are, and as you grow older, you slowly start realizing the bigger picture. At least, that’s how it was for me.
As for identity, it is such a personal thing. No matter how you see yourself, the world perceives you as something else. So when identity or a construct is imposed, it makes it even more difficult.
As an artist I choose to use all of these things or questions as material. I guess that’s how Coloured Swans came into being. I actually don’t like the title, that’s why I decided to subtitle each solo. However, the core of the title came because I started looking at my history as a dancer and what my identity as a dancer is. I am actually trained in classical ballet but never saw myself in a tutu on stage. Still, I love ballet. It is a western thing and for me it was ‘high art’.
"So, when you are young and innocent, you think that’s just the way things are, and as you grow older, you slowly start realizing the bigger picture. At least, that’s how it was for me."
Anyway, not so long ago, I started binge-watching YouTube videos on ballet. Although I looked up a lot of different ballets, the algorithm always directed me towards Swan Lake, which is one of the ballets I actually don’t like. The different versions of the solo of the Black Swan kept coming up. Watching this, just made me feel “Fuck it, it’s again this black & white thing, I’m going to create a coloured swan.” (laughs).
I guess these solos are about claiming colouredness, claiming browness, to give it a place and a most of all a voice. The process takes me on a personal journey of truly finding out where I come from, placing my feet on the ground and to start thinking critically about my body, particularly my brown performing body.
For each Coloured Swan, you worked with a different artist. Why did you choose that approach?
It’s a series. I wanted to make solos for brown bodies under this umbrella. I wanted to work with different artists, different mediums and particularly in collaboration. For my solo Khoiswan I invited Tracey Rose. Tracey and I are childhood friends. Both South-African, both coloured. I have a lot of respect for her as an artist. A lot of her work has dealt with coloured identity, and so there is a lot we can relate to. In this solo we explore the common images that reflect our ancestries, our histories and where we are today as women of colour, and specifically as decedents of the Khoi people, the indigenous people of South-Africa.
For the second solo Eldorado I am working with David Hernandez, an American dancer who lives in Belgium, with Cuban, Puerto Rican, Spanish and Scotts-Irish roots, another hybrid, another coloured. He was my teacher and he is also a friend and a brilliant dancer, performer and craftsman. Again, the process takes us on a personal journey of an immigrant performer living in Brussels. We use his mixed Latino heritage as a springboard to speak about hybridization, in-betweenism, mixedness, colourdness, brownness. Eldorado, the mythical city of gold serves as a metaphor for all kinds of quests for the promised land.
With this performance series Coloured Swans, we delve into identity and multiculturalism in contemporary society. Both are multidisciplinary performances. A hybrid of dance, theatre, music and image, just as mixed as its makers.
Can you tell us which other collaborations will follow?
I will be working with Oscar Cassamajor and Loucka Fiagan, two talented, young artists from Brussels. I have seen them perform as well as their work as artists and I find it completely original and inspiring, andin line with what I am doing. So I have invited them to be Swans and I very much look forward to collaborate with them.
Dancer and choreographer
Since moving to Brussels from South Africa in 1997, Moya Michael has been an active contributor in the performing arts ecosystem in Belgium. She studied at P.A.R.T.S. until 2000, after which she spent five years in London, where she became a founding member of the Akram Khan Company.
In 2005 Michael returned to Belgium to work with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Rosas, where she performed in many original creations as well as repertoire, and she presently continues to teach repertoire for Rosas internationally.
In 2010 she danced in Babel (Words), a creation by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui & Damien Jalet for Eastman. She went on to do various independent commissions around the world including in India, China, Germany, Austria, and her native South Africa. She also performed in Mårten Spångberg’s latest creation.
In recent years, there were three distinct touchstones or turning points for Michael as an artist. These three moments in her career directly shaped her exploration, and are the seeds of her current research.
The first turning point was in 2013, when Michael created Darling with Igor Shyshko. Darling was a significant professional step toward both collaborative and interdisciplinary methodology. She was able to really explore lighting design, scenography and particularly sound design as components equally integral to movement. Together they generated choreography that was deliberately not a demonstration of their training as dancers. It was also conceptually significant, as it was the first time that Michael – now a Belgian citizen – was able to deeply consider personal curves and layers of identity.
These conceptual threads were present in her second major turning point as well. She worked together with Faustin Linyekula on his creation of a solo for her: The Dialogue Series IV: Moya. Faustin and Michael travelled to Johannesburg and Kisangani DRC together, exploring one another’s places of origin. Working so closely with an artist asking similar questions about context and what one might refer to as “internal systems”, inspired Michael. They examined notions of visibility and “blackness” in and out of Europe, and considered whether or not “colourdness” in artistic expression is itself inherently political.
The third significant touchstone – and the point of departure for her current research – is her recent experimentation in India. Following several prior professional engagements in India, in February 2016 Michael accompanied 12 P.A.R.T.S.-students to Adishakti Theatre Company for a two-month exchange that was extremely impactful. There she participated in a workshop on Postcolonial Theory, and again she was forced to think about different systems of “brownness” (both literal and figurative), and how these inform her artistic development as she moves toward her own original choreography.