Q&A: Sarah Michelson talks about her latest premiere

Sarah Michelson unveils a new dance at the Whitney Museum of American Art

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You said that there are hardly any steps. Can you talk about a step?
Well, that’s not quite true, but it really did start out with almost no steps. But now there are some steps, but it somehow appears more like base material for each person than steps. It’s like actions, maybe. Very specific, of course.

Are the dancers connected to each other?
We talk about that all the time. So there are four of them and in that way, they are totally connected and they are totally connected to the room, what’s happening in the room and me—they are definitely together, but they’re also 100 percent autonomous. Or that’s the goal; that’s what we practice.

What is the difference between choreography and choreography as a practice?
It’s probably a misuse of the word choreography on my part. The steps and the actions are choreographed; they’re not free-floating. They’re deeply detailed. Their source is very detailed, like the source in the body, the source in me, the source in the history of any of the movements. It’s extremely detailed. So in that way, each action has a simple and complex and irrevocable place in any discussion about choreography. But when I say we’re going to the body and matter and not choreography, I’m talking about that I’m not allowing those steps or those actions to, on their own terms, add up to anything. They’re not getting built into something that then adds up to something that then is like, Oh! And there it is! I don’t allow them to add up.

What’s wrong with that payoff?
Nothing—I love when choreography’s good and structure is good and beautiful, but there’s something that I need to understand about what matters when you’re making something that’s called a dance. What matters? Can I make a dance without that? Of course you can. I’m not going down that road; it’s in a different way. It’s not removal in that ’60s way. And it’s not the dancer’s choice based on feeling good, or this is now the time to add in. It’s based on a whole series of ephemeral stuff that’s happening in the room, and based on those things they can act or not act to make an action or not make an action.

Do you have an example?
There’s a system and the system has rules, but the rules are based on the ephemeral, physics—the frequency of the room and the frequency of themselves as they understand it and based on, for example, if that frequency matches, they can act. That’s only one, but that’s an example. And then it’s like, what the fuck does that mean? So then there are months of discussion about what that is. When they act, it’s very limited what they can do.

So you’re making the layers more intricate?
Yeah, and I think the other thing is that I’m relinquishing some part of control. Like I said earlier, I can’t patch it up. They’re going to do what they’re going to do. I could still patch up Study #1 with choreography: We need to do another circle here, and you need to exit. I can’t patch it up. I just can keep going at the system.

So really what changed is your approach to structure?
Oh, totally. And in the end, that’s what I was really talking about in that FIAF thing [Not a Lecture/Performance from 2012]. It’s like, yeah, I’ve been going on in that thing for a long time; like what’s the structure? Construction, structure. Now I’m in words like mechanical engineering, physics, frequencies.

If you only have structure, as important as it is, a work can be flat. It’s like Merce: There has to be some kind of—I hate to say it—spirituality. Do you think that has to somehow enter into a dance?
Yeah, totally. I feel so hokey. The things I say are so fucking hokey. This dance is a sleeper I think, potentially, very much so. Yep. I’m sorry. [Laughs]

Is Richard Maxwell involved? Did he write something?
Yeah. I felt like it was weird to not have his voice. I’m a bit more involved this time. It’s very sweet now.

Are you working with a composer?
The music, I have no fucking idea what I’m doing. I basically play a different thing every day. It’s very unclear to me what it’s going to be soundwise.

I loved what Northern soul added to your work.
We’ve been working with that. I got rid of it when I threw everything away, but we’ve been working with that again. I don’t know. It’s been confusing and remains to be seen.

You want to be done with Devotion, but what is it like to still be inside of it?
Painful. I have a feeling that it’s going to have been a very significant period for me later that I really understand and recognize, that I can look at from beginning to end and understand it. Inside it, it feels very driven, and I’m very tired now because I’ve been going, and it’s like, Oh my God, it’s not done.

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