Dance Scientist | Festival Producer | Dancer & Choreographer
Michelle is a Dancer and Choreographer based in Dagenham, London. She achieved honours in BA Dance before studying an MFA in Dance Science at Trinity Laban, researching how biomechanical analysis can be used as a choreographic tool to immerse audience emotive. Michelle has a background in Latin and Ballroom styles, yet her strong contemporary practice has led to broad performance accolades including features in music videos (Cassius, Tontine), touring productions (Per-Form, Actual Size Dance Company) and site-specific work (East Wall: Storm the Tower, East London Dance). Developing her professional portfolio alongside academic studies, Michelle has been President and Co-Artistic Director of two student dance communities whilst also continuing duties as a community Dance Instructor. More recently, Michelle has been part of East London Dance’s FI.ELD (Future Innovators) programme from 2019-2020 through which she produced ‘MESA’, a weeklong interactive, multi-arts online festival.
I chatted with Michelle in August 2021 about her studies in contemporary dance, career progression and choreographic ambition.
© Rob Jamieson
Coming from a Latin and Ballroom background, how did you discover contemporary dance and what inspired you to then explore it more seriously?
I actually only discovered ‘real’ contemporary dance when I started my undergraduate degree at Surrey. Up until then I knew contemporary dance as a the one you see on Dance Moms like the competitive side or more gimmicky side you know? All of a sudden I was introduced to techniques and embodies approaches to movement; I was like woah, “this is what contemporary dance is? Everyone needs to be doing this, this is amazing!” This whole art form is made up from so many approaches, styles and influences I just really wanted to learn as much as I could both physically and theoretically.
In 2018 you took part in ‘East Wall: Storm the Tower’: a performance curated by Hofesh Shechter and East London Dance at the Tower of London. How did you get involved with this opportunity and what was the best part of the experience?
I got involved because a peer, Jessie Calway [who’d graduated from Surrey that same year], thought I’d really like to be part of it because I had just discovered Hofesh’s work and really loved it so she popped me a message and I was honestly like “oh my gosh yes, absolutely I will get involved!” It was honestly this experience that I was SO sure I wanted to be a choreographer/ producer. Like, I thought to myself someone can make such an impact in the world with an artform I need to be doing that too.
In your final year of your Undergraduate degree, you were President and Co-Artistic Director of two student dance communities. Why did you want to take on these responsibilities on top of your studies?
I have no idea what possessed me to do both honestly! No but honestly, I am incredibly glad I did. I think in the back of my head after doing East Wall, having the ‘I want to create or produce work for the world’ and not doing taking the placement year option on my degree, I really wanted to get comfortable in roles like this before graduating so why not take it all on while having to complete our 12,000 word thesis.
You won Guildford School of Acting’s Choreography Competition in 2019 with a co-choreographed duet, ‘Noi’, that evolved through contact improvisation. What freedoms do you find developing material through contact improvisation allows?
Oh I love contact improvisation. I never used to, I actually used to really hate it. Right up until the end of my second year / beginning of third year. But I went to a couple of the free contact improvisation classes at The Place and watched just the dancers there for a while until I plucked the courage to join in and that was it! I never thought that once you kind of leave this judgment of ‘what dance, or movement is supposed to look like’ would actually be the very thing that helped me create movement that people enjoyed watching.
How has personal practice and engaging with choreographers/companies helped define your own choreographic voice?
It honestly gave me the approval I didn’t realise I needed to basically believe in my own practices. Coming from a competitive ballroom and latin background, with no exposure to any other technique, I was always under the impression that I couldn’t be any other type of dancer or choreographer. Actually what I learned was that the choreographers I enjoyed watching most where those whose background had little to do with the syllabus of what we know as contemporary, and actually were introduces to dance or dance theatre much later in life.
Why did you feel East London Dance’s FI.ELD programme was the right step for you in-between graduating from your Bachelors Degree and starting your Masters Degree?
I knew since I chose to not do a placement year that I would’ve been at a disadvantage in terms of work-experience when applying for positions. And so, I really wanted to be involved in a programme that wanted to help artists propel their careers into motion. The FI.ELD was honestly such an incredibly huge part of my development and learning and it’s honestly one of the reasons I went on to studying my Masters Degree.
What did you learn about yourself whilst part of the FI.ELD programme and how do you feel it supports young dance artists more broadly?
The FI.ELD really taught me the value and impact creatives have in today’s world. Without getting too political, the government has shown how much they fail to appreciate artists and refuse to understand the importance of art forms and their impact on people. Because of this it is very easy as an unemployed ‘starving artist’ to think there is no chance but to retrain in something more ‘sustainable.’ The FI.ELD supported not only myself, but 15 other young creatives believe that a career in the arts is not only possible but absolutely financially viable.
What was your experience of producing ‘MESA’, an online festival? From refining the festival’s audience and ambition, to programming speakers and selling tickets during the pandemic restrictions.
Oh this pandemic! I tell you it was anything but forgiving. Originally MESA was planned to be a blended event including in-person, and covid regulated, immersive instillations as well as online talks and workshops. Because the restrictions kept changing my co-producer and I had to constantly adapt and update the teams, event producers and guest artists. Not to mention ticket structures and pricing. It was at times such a complete nightmare but it did train me to develop quick thinking strategies on the go, so much so that I had dreams about producing events that kept going wrong for weeks after!
Is producing festivals something you would like to return to in the future?
Absolutely! Having had to produce events during a once-in-a-lifetime, no one knows what, who or where pandemic, I am so super confident and honestly excited to see what new ideas for works/events are bound to come up. That is definitely something I would be loved involved and a part of, no doubt.
How did your interest in Dance Science develop?
Up until my undergraduate I always kept school and dance as two separate things. And so while doing my GCSE’s I really took to PE, Physics, Chemistry and Biology. I mean mind you, I wasn’t excellent at the science subjects by any means but I really enjoyed learning in those classes. Going on to do A-levels, I chose to do Level 3 Cambridge Technicals in Sport which explored all the fundamentals of sport science both physiologically and psychologically. Fast forwarding to having now graduated with a Degree in Dance I still always had an interest in the science / medical side of the moving body. So when I did some digging and found Trinity Laban had a course that married my two love interest together I thought, “why the hell not.” It’s definitely not easy, I tell you that. But I have been genuinely enjoying the learning process.
Trinity Laban is a renowned institution for contemporary dance training. What has your experience of studying there been so far and do you feel remote learning has impacted your practice?
The one and only good thing about remote learning is the commute time from bed to lecture in 2 minutes. Trinity Laban has such stunning facilities like the conditioning gym, studio spaces, physio offices and the laboratory but because of restrictions we have not been able to access these apart from maybe once or twice before the November lockdown. I can’t say much for the institution’s response as a whole, however our Dance Science lecturers have been really incredible. From offering one to one tutorials, to just wellbeing support, talks and resources has for sure helped me get through this lockdown.
What ambitions do you have for the next five years?
Honestly, I don’t know. Not because I am unsure of whether I want to choreograph, definitely in an ideal world it’s the only thing I would do. More because I have no idea where the world is heading and feel that there are slightly more urgent areas that need addressing. Now I have an incredibly eager area of interest in the impact of safeguarding and safe-spaces in dancer’s development. My research thesis revolves around these topics and I hope that through this I am able to offer a real change in how dancers are trained from a young age and how we as coaches, teachers, choreographers, producers, lecturers can create a real impact on their development.