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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It’s been going on since before your daughter was born.
I know, and she’s five now. I’ve been a mother this whole time, and I’ve been going—oh, okay, Devotion. It came up, it was imperfect, whatever. It came out. Study #1: I’m not done. It keeps going on like, Oh my God, I’m not fucking done? So I’m awake at night. It’s painful. I also recognize that it’s really lucky to be so driven, to have so many questions and to be able to go into the studio and to work on my art. I wish I had a little more time and I wish I didn’t feel so shit about myself all the time, because those two things get in the way, but yeah—okay, the feeling is I want to understand and I still don’t understand, but maybe I don’t want to understand at all. Maybe I’m going to be in this forest forever.

Which is okay, right?
Yeah. Because probably I’m just going to find a new forest. I don’t want to stay in the same forest forever.

What are the costumes? 
They’re hodgepodge. I’m kind of into it. I feel like haven’t I proven that I can style something? [Laughs] I’ve proven that by now, right? So there is this hodgepodge: It’s some of their own clothes. I’m going to get someone to help me with the hair, only because I did Nicole’s ’fro all the time, but that’s very hard for me when it’s actually the show.

Nicole is not the primary dancer anymore. Are they all equal in a sense?
I’m trying for that. Nicole gets nervous. She’s been really amazing and sort of the leader. She wasn’t. She was out for a while and then she came back, and she kind of became the leader and I realized I was relying on her in a way. But as it gets closer to the thing, she gets nervous. Rachel is pretty great. I really like her. She’s super smart. So right now, it’s them—they’re kind of the two, but the others…I’m working through some of my problems of working with men with John. I like him so much. He’s so disarming all the time. He’s so sweet. He did a really good job the other day. The last rehearsal was kind of good, so you’re seeing me in a good mood; the day before that was absolutely abominable.

What went wrong?
That’s what I mean, it’s hard to say because all of this ephemera. There are a bunch of things. Some of it is execution and technical stuff, and that I can control. I know how to do that. Then there’s decision-making. How much of it is decision-making, how much is the setup itself? It’s fucking hard to read. It’s hard to say what’s what.

Are people going to be sitting in seats?
Nice question. Sort of.

Are you using the floor-plan floor?
I’m building a different floor. I wasn’t going to build a floor when I was going to do Study #3 and all of a sudden when I threw the whole thing away, it became this emergency expense where I was going to have to build a floor. That, by the way, is called $25,000. Even when I paint it myself with a curator and his assistant, it still costs $25,000 to build a floor.

How influenced have you been by Jay Sanders, who is the Whitney’s curator of performing arts?
I don’t know if I’ve been influenced by him, but—well, it’s kind of a twofold question. It’s him personally and how much I love him; I ask him a lot of questions. With a lot of the choices that I’ve made, I’ve asked Jay about those choices in terms of what’s actually going to be in the building, and he’s been a big part of all of that decision-making with me. There’s a real simpatico, I think, so they’re just discussions in a way. But then he has this other role where he’s a curator and that’s how I know him and then there is, what are the needs of the museum? And of course those I’m completely influenced by, or the work is in relationship to the needs of the museum. The housing. And he’s part of that too. And those two things aren’t necessarily the same. He’s a special person.

Are you thinking about where you’re going to go next? 

The Walker is a co-commissioner of this, so some version of this will be [there] in the fall of ’15. But that’s a long time away, so I can’t imagine it’s going to be anything remotely like what it’s going to be here.

Did you learn anything from your last experience at the Whitney that you’re carrying into this? What did you figure out?
I did. It’s funny—there was a lot of tremulousness or hype about the Biennial and the fourth floor and all the discussion about fitting into that scenario and that room and trying to read the room and be in the room and make a work for that room. Of course, that’s what I did and then realized that I’d made this thing that I loved—when I look at it, I love it, but I also am repulsed by it, because it’s so sealed in. I mean this in a disgusting way, not in adulation of myself, but it’s so, like, masterpiece. It’s like, Oh, there it is. And then there was the show at MoMA where I learned about the power of the gaze and I learned at MoMA that any piece of shit—if you’re in there, you’re in the canon and the gaze. That doesn’t happen in the theater. Not like that. You’re like, Oh my God—our little experiment is now in the canon. It just happened like, This is art. It sounds so stupid and it’s not necessarily true for everyone; you don’t have to have that experience. I just felt like what happened to Nicole and me—how we got watched as the three days went by, it became not even between us anymore by the third day. Like we couldn’t hold onto it, because it became part of MoMA. I was very grateful for that. I don’t think I could have had that experience anywhere else. I’m not articulating it well, but I can feel it, and I will never, ever forget what that felt like. That it’s not your own in that scenario. The Whitney scenario is very different because the Whitney is a very different institution, and you’re somehow still allowed [for it] to be your own. Going back into the Whitney, I’m just aware of the art world in a different way. It’s not my business. I’m in the museum, but it’s not my business; I don’t feel part of that discussion. Everybody that tries to talk to me about it, I’m like, I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about. I feel like everybody is so articulate about it and I feel completely inarticulate about it. I honestly feel like I’m making my work, but I’m learning these things about what it’s like to be in an institution like that and the way that feels—it feels terrifying. It’s out of your hands so quickly. In the MoMA it was. In the Whitney…Jay is so gentle. I’m allowed to make a theater. It’s not that I prefer it. Honestly, that MoMA thing taught me so much. I have very fond memories of what I learned from that. From MoMA, I realized you can go further, you can see wider. But I think it’s part of what makes me want to go back to the theater—with that understanding.
Sarah Michelson is at the Whitney Museum of American Art Jan 24–Feb 2.

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