Sticky Shifts and Other Absurdities: a response by Samantha Allen

A response to The Monomyth

Created and performed by Michelle Boulé

Sat, April 6, 2019 at Links Hall*

image: Ian Douglas

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In Michelle Boulé’s solo work, The Monomyth, Boulé is a shapeshifter, a transformer. As soon as I think I know what I’m seeing, it’s over, she’s already moved on and become something else. And yet these shifts, and the uncertainty they breed, are the most delightful and sticky moments — the kind that stay with you long after the work ends.

For me, it’s the slow-motion club groove that somehow becomes an escape from hell, a woman running in terror. Chased? Being chased? I don’t know. It feels like she’s running for her life. What started as something simple and sweet — a shimmy, a woman feeling herself on the dance floor, a slight smile on her face, slowly shifting her weight forward and back as subtle undulations roll through her torso — becomes something obscene and horrifying. But funny. Boulé’s slow jam morphs so seamlessly into a scene from another movie — a horror film, perhaps — that I can’t help but laugh at the absurdity, or maybe it’s my uncertainty? As her movements transform, her face takes a similar journey, finally arriving at something like terror. Silently screaming, she’s not going anywhere and yet she’s been through hell.

Next, it’s the banana phone she picks up from its holster on the wall. Who dis? Visions of sappy 60s movies that I can’t name flicker through my mind. She takes the phone and makes her way upstage with her delightfully quirky movement, at once luscious and weighty, swirly, sharp and specific. She takes the most laborious and circuitous route possible to hang up the phone — we don’t even realize that’s what she’s doing until it’s done.

Later, it’s the bulbous balloon breasts and butt cheeks that transform Boulé into something else completely: a headless organism, slithering and writhing on the floor, trying to find its way. I’ve watched Boulé blow up the balloons and stuff them into her shirt and pants, showing us her jumbo butt, breasts and belly. And yet, a few minutes later, I no longer know what I’m looking at. As she struggles to navigate the space and the floor with this new, distorted and cumbersome body, I lose track of her head. What am I looking at? Is this a person? She so skillfully tricks the eye, even as we watch her do it.

When she finally frees herself and the balloons, she’s spent. Down to her underwear and bra, she’s splayed out, face down on the floor. When she’s ready, she’s squirming again, humping the floor as she tries to collect her belongings. Arms pinned beneath her, she wiggles and thrusts her pelvis, sending her legs out like windshield wipers, inching the balloons closer together, corralling them between her crotch and the wall. It takes so much effort. She’s spent again. Breathless, almost naked, she rests. What has happened here? Is she okay?

Later, as Boulé moves downstage near the wall, she’s headed right for me. I can see her face and all its incredible range and plasticity. She’s agitated, silently screaming into the phone. But suddenly I realize maybe she’s lip-syncing. It’s hard to tell. She seems to be saying so much more than just the lyrics. It’s cartoonish and once again I can’t be sure of what I’m seeing, and yet I’m entranced. As her face contorts into an explosion of rage or despair or something else, she’s silently belting out:

Where did you come from, baby?

How did you know I needed you?

How did you know I needed you so badly?

How did you know I’d give my heart so gladly?

Yesterday I was one of the lonely people

Now you’re lying close to me, making love to me

I believe in miracles, where you from, you sexy thing…

All of these questions — What am I looking at? Is this a person? What has happened here? Is she okay? How did you know I needed you? — feel central to Boulé’s work. She flips between so many versions and images of a “woman” that my head spins. She’s the girl next door, a forlorn lover, a woman on the run, a woman unhinged — a crazy bitch! She’s a sexual deviant, a mother, a teacher, a slut, a good girl, a bad ass superwoman, a poor little thing. She’s the woman you need to be, have to be, hate to be.

The archetypes, the clichés and the caricatures are so far beyond, that it strikes a nerve — I know this feeling, this effort. I know what it is to be stretched thin. To be so many different versions, shaping myself into the right woman for the moment, the woman someone else needs me to be. I know just how to contort myself for you, for this instance. I know how to give you the version you demand, the version you can deal with right now. How did you know I’d give my heart so gladly? What can I do? Who can I be for you today?

We contain multitudes — but also, fuck you and your platitudes.

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Samantha Allen is a performer, dancer and maker in Chicago. With L.A.-based collaborator Devika Wickremesinghe, Samantha makes live work and films through the INSTITUT IDGAF — next show is at Links Hall May 31st! She also partners with director Chris Cascarano on film projects, as an actress, production designer and creative producer. She’s an editor by day and also sells vintage art and furniture from her ever-changing studio in West Town.

(*) PRJ is partnering with Links Hall to celebrate their 40th anniversary by providing a platform for artist-to-artist responses to the work that is presented as part of the Pay-the-40th-Forward season. Thank you, Links Hall, for all that you do for the dance and performance communities in Chicago. Congratulations on 40 years!