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Bessie Nominee Profile: Michelle Boulé

Written by
Helen Shaw

For the next two weeks, we'll be counting down to the Bessie Awards—also known as the New York Dance and Performance Awards—by talking to the 15 performance nominees. This year, the nominators have honored a remarkably diverse group, one which manages to span the spectrum from trance dancers to flamenco performers, from long-time legends to exciting new faces. We'll be posting new interviews nearly every day, so be sure to check back to learn about the best New York dance has to offer, and start getting your fanciest duds together for the Bessie Awards at the Apollo Theater on October 19th.

RECOMMENDED: See more on the Bessie Awards

Michelle Boulé has been nominated for a Bessie for her body of work with Miguel Gutierrez, the avant-queer choreographer whose Age & Beauty triptych appeared this season in the Crossing the Line Festival at New York Live Arts. Boulé, herself also a dance-maker, has been dancing with Gutierrez and his group the Powerful People for well over a decade, adding a luminosity, earnestness and tireless endurance to works like And lose the name of action and Last Meadow.

How many years have you been with Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People?
14. Miguel and I did a duet called Careen in 2001 and over the years I've been in maybe…ten pieces.

How did you first meet?
I went to take his class, and it was challenging in a way that I hadn't experienced before. I didn't know him as a maker, so I swear it wasn't a career move on my part! Then I got injured one day in his class—he was dancing for John Jasperse at the time, so we were doing falls from a straight leg into a roll on the floor. My shoulder caught, and I had to wear a sling on my arm.

I didn't see him for months, but when I came back to class, he said, “Oh my god I've been thinking about you!” I think we made the duet in just a couple of rehearsals in two weeks. We premiered it in a group show at P.S. 122.

And you know, because of that injury, I went to see someone for body work, and that was the first holistic healing I ever tried. I don't want to use the word “magical,” but I passed out at the end of the massage. She was trying to move my arm, and then suddenly I was on the floor with water on me. I had dreams about my sister and laughing—that injury began this whole path for me into a holistic way of taking care of the body and looking at the body, which became a huge part of my work.

As he has changed, how has your own work changed?
In Part 2 [of Age & Beauty, which looks back at the pair's long history], I talk about writing him a card saying how much I connected to what he was doing. I knew I wanted to be involved with work that was pushing the form—from the first rehearsal, I was excited.

In that first piece, I was so young, I didn't say much. I just executed what he wanted: he could make it up, and I could remember it. His work then was so much about the manipulation of movement. Then through developing a friendship over the years, that's shifted. What's stayed consistent is that I have an ability to readily enter into his ideas, a trust on his and my part. Still, it's shifting organically. For instance, I don't think I could have been in Part 3, and I found myself watching it and asking, what is that I offer onstage?

Can you recall a particularly memorable moment in a Gutierrez piece?
The second 10pm show that we did a week ago of Part 2, I had more energy than ever. I had so much to give, just this endless supply, and I was kind of amazed at the presence that was available to me. We always have a moment before the show when Miguel speaks to us—he says, “Your heart chakra is open," and in that moment in the show, I felt that. That was personally very powerful, there was no sense of needing to reserve anything. I think that's just a performer thing; I know I've felt it in Deborah Hay's work, particularly when it's extreme duration, and I'm engaged in rapid-fire action. It can give you a weird moment of simultaneously thinking “What I am doing?” and “This is what I'm doing.”

Do you have a performance philosophy?
Performing is a constant test, if that's the right word. It's an opportunity to be present. Miguel is always saying to “take care of the present moment.” When you can sit inside of that, it's tremendous.

What was the background/training/quality that has made you the performer you are?
My boyfriend would say that I'm a Scorpio, which means I go deep! [Laughs] I think there's just something about commitment that I can do. I helped my older sister deliver her first baby, and it turned out to be a traumatic birth—and I decided that I wasn't going to sleep, I was just going to help her do it, be there every minute. It was another type of moment that was extremely exhausting, and yet it demanded a deep commitment. Performance is like that, those instances where something is really calling for immediate and urgent action. I feel like I can't not step up.

Do you have a preshow ritual?
I usually tap out my cortices, which is a technique from BodyTalk, an energetic practice I'm part of. I have one hand on my head, and I tap over my head and over my heart—it resets the brain, so the fight-or-flight response can't hijack it. I also think about a moment I had a couple of years ago, when I realized: this performance is a moment of being witnessed, a moment in a larger trajectory of time. Don't be nervous—any one show isn't the end-all or be-all!

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