Sarah Michelson

The Whitney Biennial is the setting for a closer look at Devotion.

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Non Griffiths performs Sarah Michelson's Devotion

Non Griffiths performs Sarah Michelson's Devotion Photograph: Paula Court

What is a dance? That question has haunted Sarah Michelson for years. As she delves deeper into form, she's getting closer to an answer. Her latest work, part of the Whitney Biennial, is her most austere dance yet. The subtitle of Devotion: Study #1—The American Dancer—a quote by George Balanchine—is a mouthful, but worth repeating: "Superficial Europeans are accustomed to say that American artists have no 'soul.' This is wrong. America has its own spirit—cold crystalline, luminous, hard as light... Good American dancers can express clean emotion in a manner that might almost be termed angelic. By angelic I mean the quality supposedly enjoyed by the angels, who, when they relate a tragic situation, do not themselves suffer." It makes sense. In The American Dancer, Michelson takes a microscopic look at last year's Devotion.

Why do you want your dance to be in a museum?
I didn't think that I wanted to be in one. I was approached. I realized immediately that I would fail, and as soon as I realized that, I knew that I would do it. It was proposed, I sensed my own doom and said okay.

You always sense doom, yet you don't fail.
I know. I feel like I fail all the time.

How did you fail in Devotion?
I failed in a million ways. There's some really deep, solid, considered, overconsidered, beloved work in that last piece: Rebecca's [Warner] solo and Non [Griffiths] and James's [Tyson] duet and how the text is working with it. There are some other things that I feel are old and I don't know—ask Mike Iveson the answer to that question. [Laughs] The turning section was an appendage in a way. It's right—I wanted to go toward that, but I didn't get to finish it, or I didn't get to figure out what that was meant to be and the thing as a whole wasn't perfect. It definitely was not perfect. It had so much love and so much work in it. I guess it's never going to be perfect. For the Whitney, I realized very quickly that I didn't have anywhere near the time I needed. Dover Beach was three years, and Devotion was a year and a half. Although I had all these ideas I wanted to try, I realized that they would be very thin on the ground in six months, so I needed to stay where I was. I was so desperate to get away from Devotion, actually. But I realized I had to stay. So I did decide to investigate further the part of the dance that I felt was the least touched and the least successful or the least understood by me, which was that section.

Why move away from Devotion? Did it feel like an ending?
In a way, it felt like a beginning. Or the combination of a beginning and an ending. It's very confusing and very complicated for me, but I wanted to get away from it because I had felt locked down into formalism. Okay, I claimed to be formal when I was peeing on the stage with Julie [Atlas Muz] in Blister Me. I would say, "No, I'm formal. It's formal—you don't understand." So now here it is, it's formal. And to me, it still somehow keeps feeling punk rock to be formal. And I'm like, Right. You're 50 almost. You're like an old-codger loser. But I keep thinking that there must be some space in there for me to breathe. The battle with choreography is so extreme. I go to shows that are really great that don't have that battle and I feel I could do that. I can be Kate Bush or whatever. [Cups hands and speaks into the recorder] "Trajal [Harrell]." I'm in this battle. I keep thinking it's going to come, that there's going to be the moment where I'm Ralph Lemon and Okwui [Okpokwasili] or I'm Franois [Chaignaud], Cecilia [Bengolea] and Trajal. I know that I can do that and live that. I have it in my body, but for some reason, I'm in this style of choreography. So I keep thinking I'm going to get out, but I'm not out yet. That's what I have to say.

Why do you want to get out?
Because sometimes it's quite hard. I feel like I'm bridging a funny place. Who am I? Where do I exist? I'm a contemporary thinker who is able to observe extreme modernity within the form, but I'm hook, line and sinker into fucking minimalist decisions of the body. You should hear what I talk about in rehearsal. It's retarded. I'm like, "Guys, I'm sorry—I'm really not that kind of person, but we're going to talk about energy." [Laughs]

Give me an example of how you talk about energy.
I talk about it all the time, every fucking day.

How are you directing the dancers?
I am directing their relationship between precision and their ability to experience space. So forget performance; it's that the dancer really can experience a circle while being accountable for a million other things and get to the center of the Earth and the sky. It's so fucking crazy.

You mentioned circles. Does that have anything to do with the choreography of Laura Dean?
No. I feel like that's concocted; this is not that. Laura Dean had interest in that work, and she headed toward something that became her. I'm not going to do circles my whole life. I wonder if there was some kind of science where you could equate having this moment energetically—sorry—that there would be the same kind of imprisonment and freedom in all my work. So let's say Julie and I are peeing on the stage and we're naked, but there's a formalism. But let's also say that when it gets performed, there has to be a certain amount of freedom. So I used to try and find the formalism. Now it's so formal, but I want to find the same ability, the same Julie Atlas Muz person within the dancer who is formal--extreme. Is it possible to still have that present? I don't know. Do you know what I'm saying? The balance in the show stays the same. In some way, the balance between the two things stays the same.

Why the fixation on circles?
What happened was that was a part of Devotion that was really a problem. Cecilia came to town and wanted to work with me. She had tried to learn Rebecca's solo a little bit, and I was really dissatisfied: It was too passionate and she was too involved in it, so I said, "I just want to see you do some triplet circles." I had ten days with her doing triplet circles, which she was pretty horrible at—I'm sorry, Cecilia—but when Nicole [Mannarino] came in one day to start this process, I asked, "Can you just show me what the turning was in Devotion?" And even though all it was was four triplet circles, it was totally different. How that's possible can only be energy; it's the same circle, the same size. So based on that moment with Nicole, I was like, Oh. If, in ten days with Cecilia, Nicole can be doing them like that and it's nothing like we were doing, how is that possible? That's the mystery of the choreography right there. We are doing 12 steps in a backward circle—down, up, up; down, up, up; down, up, up; down, up up. And it's not the same? That's just weird.

How is energy different from performance quality, which is something you've explored in your work over the years?
I suppose more recently the task of the choreography has taken precedent over some idea of an audience or a presentation. It just is between me and the person in the room. There was some massive shift of intention. So I had to try and understand why Cecilia and Nicole were so different. What does that mean? That's why, in this weird dance more than any other time, we got to this idea of energy or intention. The body is divided. There's all this stuff they have to do with the legs that has repercussions. It has to be super precise, and at the same time, they have to be truly open—100 percent hippie style. They have to be totally open or else it can't work. I have never seen it work. It's a failure of a dance. It's a proposition.

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