Freelance correspondent Lightsey Darst sits down with French-born and now NC-based dancer, performer, and choreographer Murielle Elizéon.
It’s towards dusk on Sunday night when I walk up to Major’s Plaza in downtown Durham, where a slow wheel of people surrounds a gesturing figure. Tango music—accordion, tinny piano—sings from a mounted speaker outside Pour, and the people under its sway walk, gazing at each other. Shoulders, wrists twitch; eyes catch here and there. It’s hardly a dance yet, but it draws in spectators, people who want to be dancing but get out their phones to film the action instead. The teacher, a dark woman in an open-backed jumpsuit and old red wrestling shoes, stops the dancers to explain a point.
Murielle Elizéon, born in France, now resident in Saxapahaw, is showing her solo Brown at the American Dance Festival this month. She and I have been chasing each other around trying to nail down this interview, working around kids (we both have them), jobs, art, and community commitments. (Disclosure: Elizéon and I know each other and have worked together through the organizations she and I founded and help run, Culture Mill and Durham Independent Dance Artists respectively.) Now she’s just got this class to finish and we can sit down.
But for now her focus is on her students. They need care, because they’re self-conscious, looking at their feet, touching each other tentatively. Tango is freighted with adult allure, a dark knowing that seems out of place, even dangerous now. But Elizéon is an easy teacher. She defuses tension with physical comedy, pantomiming a bad lead, kicking her partner’s foot and driving him like a linebacker. Her self-presentation leaves room for whatever might be yours, from high-glam femme to hipster androgyne and everything in between. Her concern is less with self-presentation than orientation to the other, as she mimes ways of relating. Am I using you as a pretext for something I want to do? Am I chasing you? Am I so anxious I can’t feel you? Am I listening? Unpretentious, she approaches her students with the confidence that they can and will understand, and not only understand but empathize. She makes a safe place for people to practice who they are with others—as leaders, followers, and fellow creatures.
“She wants to dance,” the man running the music says, pushing forward a woman on the outside of the circle. “She came here to dance, but she’s too shy.” Her center-parted henna locs shade her face. Elizéon draws her in and finds her a partner.
So much is visible as the music starts and the pairs lean into moving again. I see a couple who take no physical care with other; they should break up. A college-age man and woman, standing like cardboard cutouts, don’t seem to know themselves, let alone each other. But gravity pools where two people, their profiles serious as dawn, listen close for the center of each one shifting, feeling the tiny message of change sift through the contact of their palms, letting it ripple up the suspension system of arms and shoulders to their own answering change.
A guy on a skateboard drifts by like a low cloud. Risk is in the air—the risk of being sensually available, of being seen to be available. It’s this risk that draws the rest of us close.
The lesson ends but the tango goes on even as rain starts to fall. The shy young woman is still dancing with her new partner.
* * *
Brown remembers Elizéon’s distant father and his difficult legacy, and stages Elizéon’s own struggles with gender and racial stereotype, violence against women, and loss. In tango, Elizéon teaches people how to trust and be trusted. But in the context of Brown, these are inherently dangerous skills. It’s the first subject I raise when we sit down.
“Tango is a magnifying glass,” she says, “this constant conversation” that reveals what’s going on between people. She’s interested in the less addressed side of the relationship: “We always talk about leadership, but we don’t talk about followership. There is no good leadership without following.” What is good followership? It’s “committing and staying on center.” The follower must maintain some hold on her center, or the movement is out of balance. Elizéon is speaking this not to blame but to interrogate “certain events in my life where I did”—she straightens up—“give away my center and I almost died.” And part of the mission of Brown, of tango, of Elizéon it seems, is to ask and help others ask “when and how I did give my center and what did it produce and how can I find it back?”
“I hear it’s intense,” she laughs, “I don’t know, I’m in it.” Domestic violence is still “one of the things that you keep for as long as you can and you can’t talk about it.” To further that conversation, Brown includes an outreach component, a post-show discussion facilitated by Val Hanson, director of the Restorative Justice Program at the Dispute Settlement Center in Carrboro. Is community engagement natural for Elizéon’s art? I ask. She explains that in Europe, if you have funding, outreach is required, so she’s used to thinking of engaging community as part of the practice of art. But beyond that, “I do feel it’s part of my role,” she says. Her art came out of her life to begin with, “so we’re going to connect the dots. I can receive the experience, I can transform it into something else. It’s a tool that I can share.” This is the same language she uses for Val Hanson’s facilitation—she creates experiences.
Elizéon puts me in mind of another woman artist with the same given name:
Art is practiced by the artist and the audience. It is not a means to an end, unless that end is the total imaginative experience.
That experience will have meaning. It will apply to your life; and it is more than likely to lead you to thought or action, that is, you are likely to want to go further into the world, further into yourself, toward further experience.–Muriel Rukeyser
(The Life of Poetry, Paris Press, 1996 )
The purpose of the intervention, Elizéon says, is to help create “emotional literacy.” She refers back to her experience with domestic violence, the moment she moved on and realized, “You know what, I didn’t die; I’m going to dance, actually.” And because that’s true for her, “I know that it can be true for other people.”
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Lightsey Darst is a writer and arts organizer. Find her poetry at Coffee House Press.