Sarah Michelson

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

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But every dance is a failure, right?
Yes. And this one is, I guess, a presentation of that. There's no peeing on the stage. It's all formal. It's dry as hell. You will not fall asleep, but many people will.

What are the repercussions for the dancers?
Eleanor [Hullihan] and Nicole are total heroes, honestly—even if they fuck it up and even if they fail. Already in rehearsals, there are so many tears. You should see the complicated way they have to pad their feet. And not only the complicated way they have to pad their feet, but the history to the padding of their feet; of what they rejected and how they took pointe-shoe [padding] and cut it out to protect the ball of their foot. They tape it so that a part of their foot doesn't touch the floor. Nicole and Eleanor are definitely living this thing. The rehearsal process is so different. I'm totally anal. I know what they're doing pretty much every second, but sometimes I don't because it's so complicated. There's two percent of the time where I'm like, "What are you up to?" When they do run-throughs, I don't stop them or talk. It's really different because how they handle the situation that they're in has become something called "protocol." How they handle what they're doing with each other. They have a huge responsibility. It's a dance. Whatever. But they have a responsibility toward the work, toward each other, which is the work, which is them inside of the work. Quite often, I'm on the outside—and of course, I give them tons of notes afterward—but during the run, even if they fuck up, I don't interact at all, because they will have to work it out.

Is it because you'll be in a public setting?
No. I guess it fits into that idea, but no, not because of that at all. Because of how they have to do it. They have to figure it out. I'm not going to be there to help them.

How many people are in the cast?
That's a million-dollar question. I can tell you this: It's Nicole, Eleanor, Maggie Cloud, James Tyson, Moriah Evans and possibly one other, and then me and another person reading the text. In a Devotion way. I had an audition. I took Moriah from the audition, and Moriah can't really do it all, but I just really loved her and it did feel like it's a battle between...

Doesn't she represent your old self in a way?
Yes, exactly. And then Maggie can do a circle. So I'm struggling with both those things.

Is there a score or only text?
There is sound, but I don't know what it is exactly. It's quite mysterious. I started rehearsing still working with Philip Glass, because I was in the Devotion scenario. I let that go and it felt like a real relief to do that. [Laughs] Fucking hell. Probably for five months, we were listening to In the Upper Room every day for hours. The most played thing on my iPod forever. But it's gone and replaced by nothing that I can name really. There's a metronome. We can't do it without a metronome. It's not possible. The metronome is not decorative in any way. This dance might seriously be the lemon. This is what I think: I don't think it's the lemon, but I think it's just getting quieter and quieter. I'm just doing this very simple idea: I'm just trying to make the idea live.

Is it meaningful for you to be a part of the Biennial?
This is a funny thing to say, and I don't know what the politics are for me to say this. It's meaningful for me—when [curators Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders] came to my house and talked about it, it didn't even feel they were talking about the Biennial, even though it was. It felt like [it was about] being in the Whitney. I'm British and I feel like the Whitney is such an American institution, and that felt meaningful for me to be inside an institution that was built to take care of American art in a certain way. I got text that [Whitney architect] Marcel Breuer wrote about the building and that became very formative. It's very beautiful. The dreams of the '60s. Somehow this commission came, and I took it personally. It's not a solo-personal-colloquial work. It's abstract, minimalism, America. And it's my relationship to America. And Cunningham. Who am I? I don't know.

In Devotion, there were obvious references to Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room. Why are you so drawn to that dance?
I think that there are dance works that are outside of your aesthetic or history or contemporary understanding that you're able to experience as finite. It's very rare. And even though I've never seen the real performance of that live—I've only seen the reductive performances [with newer casts]—seeing the reductive is so informative because I know that In the Upper Room has a kind of finite reality. It happened in a certain time, it happened with certain ideas about performance and those things still imprint how you look at it. I have said this to you a million times: I have never, and I don't know if I ever will make a dance that exists beyond its time. I don't know if it's a goal, but when I see dances that were made on characters and were made with timely ideas, but then exist outside of the kitsch of their own environment, it impresses me. Maybe it has to do with Philip Glass in a weird way. I also like Lucinda Childs's Dance. The music is so similar because it's Philip's. They are both women, and their time is represented by this one man. I guess I wanted to be in relationship to that. I hope, with my whole heart, hope not to borrow and steal and take from that, but to just recognize that I'm making dances and that this history—the stuff that preceded me—is totally present, however downtown I go. However naked I am. The Twyla thing is interesting, because you took me to see In the Upper Room for the first time, but I had hated her for a million years before that and also knew that she was brilliant. Before I saw In the Upper Room, I had met Twyla three times [while working] at the River Caf [in London]. She had been an asshole. So when I do finally see In the Upper Room and I go to my feet, I'm like, That bitch is a genius. And [her dancers] Greg [Zuccolo] and Mike [Iveson] hated it. Of course, I questioned it. I don't question it now! Even if you see it with ABT and people fall over! I'm not going to make the dance where people fall over, but in the end you still leap to your feet. It's Philip Glass and some fog. There's not so much smoke and mirrors. There's not much extra than the structure. She's a structural genius. She's an ice queen and ice queens make good structure. I think I have that slightly in common. In the end, I'm a fan, and she's defensive and protective and all the things that I am also. So I get it.

What did you think when you found out that Michael Clark was the other choreographer in the Biennial? Did you feel like you were in some British club?
I have to say it was very strange and that's not Michael's fault. I'm more than proud to be affiliated with him. When the Whitney people came to me and were talking about legacy and Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer, I had a certain headset on and when the other person was Michael Clark, I was like, My God, that's my real legacy. Hello. Those are the first dances I saw. It felt confusing. Charles Atlas is his technical director, and he is someone I've known for years. I went to see my first Michael Clark performances at Sadler's Wells when I was 20 or 21. I really thought that I was being embraced by America in a weird way when I got the offer, and then I was like, Oh no—it's British. The two choreographers are British. Ultimately, in my own personal trajectory, it's probably very interesting. Honestly, and this is where I am going hypermystic, but it can only be some weird gift. They came talking to me about Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown and the other choreographer was Michael Clark. My invisible history is present. I have six months to make this. It's not going to be a thing. It's not going to be Devotion. It's not a presentation in that way where when you feel like, This is ready. It's not like that. It's open. There are going to be mistakes. [Laughs] We have a thing called protocol.

Are you relieved to be going first?
Totally. The fact that it's empty and nothing else has happened? I'm sure I'll make a piece of shit, but nothing's happened yet. Nicole and Eleanor are going to happen, and we're going to be crying and a mess and it's going to be totally unprofessional, but it's going to happen. That feels clean. And I'm making it, I'm going there, I'm sitting in there and everyone's sitting with me. It's imperfect. We're trying to figure out how to do crowd control. All of those things that the first person must work out. It would be easier if I was going after, but I would totally sacrifice that for the fact that no one has been in there. We're so delicate. No one is prepared. The dancers are delicate, I'm delicate, the room is delicate. The room's not prepared.

Sarah Michelson is in residence at the Whitney Museum of American Art Mar 1--11; performances are Mar 1--4 and 7--11.

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