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Walker Art Center’s ‘Mercurial George’ gets viewers thinking about empathy

January 12, 2018 GMT

Mercurial George delves into an interior life and turns it inside out, for all to see. Conceived and performed by Montreal artist Dana Michel, this second offering in the Walker Art Centers monthlong Out There festival explores a womans absorbing journey through a world that might be real, imaginary or (more likely) somewhere in between.

Michel took the stage Thursday evening by crawling into the spotlight on all fours, topless, wearing white tights and too-large sneakers. Her limbs bend awkwardly and she mutters or sings to herself (Nope, nope, nope, OK). Two large bags crinkle loudly as she tries to wrangle them. Michels movement is impulsive, inquisitive, irritated. She organizes a modest collection of objects, tries to tame the live microphones long cord and drops the mike repeatedly (its practically a second performer in the piece). She pays no mind to its startling clunk.

As the work unfolds, Michel reveals different aspects of her personas humanity: a black woman, living on the margins, perhaps due to disability, mental illness, addiction, homelessness, race or all of the above.

But her portrayal is far from literal instead we experience Michels performance in a very visceral manner as she wobbles across the stage gripping a bag of bread, nudges up against objects as if they are her closest friends, determinedly positions her props, plays with vocalization and kneads dough before tossing it onto the floor with a dull thud.

The theater gives us permission to stare at Michel, and that fact should give us pause. She shares how someone might struggle with inner and outer worlds, and yet we might avert our eyes when encountering the same unpredictable behavior on the sidewalk. She challenges us to consider whether we are more capable of empathy and patience while safely seated within an artistic space just because we get to create the narrative about the person before us.

Michel marches purposefully in a circle near the end of Mercurial George, her hip hitched, body tilted and gaze fixed. The sounds of an ocean grow louder, like a rush of blood to the head. (The consistent rhythm is also soothing and enveloping.) Then she disappears into the darkness, and we wonder whether she will ever emerge from it again.

Caroline Palmer is a Twin Cities dance critic.