Sarah Michelson

The award-winning choreographer presents Dover Beach at the Kitchen.

  • BEWITCHED Non Griffiths, photographed in Cardiff, is part of the enchantment of...

  • Dover Beach being performed in Cardiff, Wales (Photograph: Kirsten McTernan)

  • Dover Beach being performed in Cardiff, Wales (Photograph: Kirsten McTernan)

  • Dover Beach being performed in Cardiff, Wales (Photograph: Kirsten McTernan)

  • Dover Beach being performed in Cardiff, Wales (Photograph: Kirsten McTernan)

BEWITCHED Non Griffiths, photographed in Cardiff, is part of the enchantment of...


For her new Dover Beach, Sarah Michelson focuses on "a subtle examination of the development of a dance style within a particular culture." All true—but it's actually more enthralling than that. Created over two years in Cardiff, Wales (in a series of short residencies at Chapter Arts), and in another stint in New York, the work—for a cast of 12 including young girls and featuring an original score by Pete Drungle—is Michelson's most lucid foray into pure movement. There is a set, created with her longtime collaborator Parker Lutz, but this time, it's the dance that matters. Michelson, a 2009 Guggenheim recipient, spoke about the work at her Brooklyn apartment.

What were the beginnings of Dover Beach?
James Tyson of Chapter Arts [in Cardiff, Wales] approached me first in Berlin when I was there on a research trip before Shadowmann went there. He had seen Shadowmann Part Two in New York and said that he was a curator and liked my work. I was rude. I said, [Referring to manager Barbara Bryan] "This is Barbara." Anyway, we stayed in touch and I had a meeting with him in London after he had seen Swan Lake [for Transitions Dance Company, Laban Centre] when it was performed in Wales. He also came to Minneapolis to see Daylight (for Minneapolis). At our meeting, he said that if there was anything that Chapter Arts or he could do to support my work, he'd be very interested to know what it was. And I said, "Well, it's funny you say that, because my granny's getting old and I want to spend more time with her, so I'd be very open to being in the U.K. a bit more." He said, "Let me get some research and development money." I think I got six paid weeks to be in the U.K.

You first traveled to Cardiff in early 2007 after your first hip surgery. What were your plans?
There was absolutely no expectation. So I was in this town with crutches, where it rained every day—and I had no idea. At Chapter Arts, there was a flyer for a ballet class and I asked permission to watch it. It was freezing cold—always—at Chapter Arts, and I didn't want to leave. It had something to do with the fascinating thing of watching the archetypal movements of ballet and these children who didn't yet know what they were. The young ones—understanding that they're learning something historical, that has existed for a long time in the most basic way. They know that there's a perfect version of this form, and they're doing these movements to a cassette recorder. I was like, "This is it. I guess this is what I'm interested in in Cardiff." So that was the beginning.

Did Tyson know of that ballet school?
It's funny. Chapter Arts used to be a school and there's an arts center, which he's part of. The class was in there, but he didn't know anything about it, really. They are renters. So now the community center is part of the fine-art end of it and then there are all these classes and things that go on that are separate, but part of the community activity. Now they have a direct relationship where he can invite them to performances that he curates.

Was another part of the appeal that he had put in the time with watching your work?
Yeah. It definitely, over time, has seemed to be a thing that the person has to really want to work with me. It's no good if they just think that they like the idea of me or my work. They have to actually be really willing to work with me because it's always some labyrinthine project. I don't mean it to be, but it always turns out that it needs so much time and attention. So, yes: When we finally had that meeting and he said, "Could I do anything for you?" I felt like he had thought about it, that he really meant it and that it was very specific. The invitation wasn't general or casual. I'm very open to that and I quite often say yes to things that I would never normally say yes to when I'm faced with that because I trust it, I suppose. I feel like something will come of it.

For producers, is it work to work with you?
Yes. Totally. It's really intense for everybody. I don't know if that's my Northern English side or not, but I really believe that is somewhere deep in the work. You just have to work and work and work, and in the work is the thing—somewhere.

When did you find the thing of this?
On the second trip back, I was introduced to some girls who started to do bits and pieces with me.

Did you see the girls who had been in the original class?
Yes. But I didn't know who would come and only five girls did; the three who became the main girls were there right away. Later that week, 20 other girls came. It was funny—the ones who came originally were the ones I used. I was excited, but it was really the third trip when I discovered the connection between Laura Weston [of Dogs] and Non Griffiths. And it was just with some very simple movements, but I could feel it.

Was it physical?
It was physical and tonal. It was the tone that they had in relationship to effort and my movements. In some way or another, there's a huge amount of effort in them, which isn't always obvious. I think I'm the queen of making movements that look like they're not hard but are really the hardest thing in the world to do. I also think that there's a way, when you look at someone's face-slash-being when they're trying to accomplish the task of one of these movements, that is crucial. There's something that I'm looking for—it's a kind of attitude, a personality trait in relationship to difficulty that has a tone. It has a temperature. It's kind of cool. I don't mean cool like the Fonz. But it has a coolish temperature in relationship to a heat or effort.

In Dover Beach, you address the way dancers phrase your movement by maintaining that each movement be executed individually. In doing so, you also create a specific rhythm. Why is that appealing?
I think that probably started with Dogs or with Love Is Everything for the Lyon Opera Ballet. All along I've been trying to understand whether or not I'm a choreographer. Is it when you are able to stage a concept and fulfill it, or does it have to be the making of movements—and, if so, what's the relationship of the dance with the movement? They were deep, inarticulate questions for a while, and I think they have to do with ownership. What makes the choreography mine? In the studio, it's a fervent desire to see movement done in a certain way and that turns out to be pure. I'm making referentially original movements, and I'm really wanting to see them. As soon as some other history in the dancer's body or rhythm comes in, the intention of the movement changes or becomes invisible and no longer, perhaps, monolithic or archetypal—and then I become dissatisfied. Is it the movement? Dover Beach has become a deep study in how to make and execute movement that can exist free of any extraneous rhythmic interpretation or any history in the dancer's body. I fail, but that's part of the experiment because it is very, very, very hard.

You are known for your visual design—and there will be a minimal set—but I'm more interested in the choreography. In this case, I see the design as an intentional frame for the choreography.
Totally. I'm working on this thing and I feel like I fail every single day I go to rehearsal. I'm like, "What the fuck?" It's a really funny thing, because I feel like I work so hard and I'm working everybody so hard, but what I'm trying to do is impossible. I don't understand why I don't do something easier that everyone's going to love. No, I have to do this crazy-ass thing that's going to be really annoying to watch.

Can you give me a sense of how you guide them through the choreography in the studio?
Well, I'm trying to do a couple of things: One is working on the movements. In the case of Rebecca Warner, we've been working on material for a year and a half, and we continue to work on it. It's intense work. And then I'm trying to understand what the purpose is. There's all this choreography and all these movements—so what? And then how does that make a dance piece? Every time, that's the question. What is a good dance? What is a bad dance? I have no idea. [Mutters] I should ask Shen Wei.

Another thing you're doing in Dover Beach is to strip away the sensuality or potential ease of the movement through rigorous cadence.
Hopefully. And this just sounds so dumb and literal, but it happens to be that everybody in the show is so different. Even when there are very obvious tie-ins. Like, Laura and Rebecca have almost exactly the same physicality—like height, weight and shape of the face—but they're from different countries, they have different training, they dance completely differently. So their approach to doing movement, obviously, is really different, but the task of the movement—the thing that I require of the movement—is the same. So what does that mean when that's happening on the stage? Rebecca is a lot more technical than Laura. Does that mean that Laura is no good? I don't think so.


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