Q&A: Sarah Michelson talks about her latest premiere

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

Sarah Michelson (b. 1964), Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer, February 2012, during the 2012 Whitney Biennial.

Sarah Michelson (b. 1964), Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer, February 2012, during the 2012 Whitney Biennial. Photograph: Photograph © Paula Court 

To wrap up her acclaimed Devotion series, Sarah Michelson unveils 4 at the Whitney Museum.The work is Michelson's third consecutive museum premiere: Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer also took place at the Whitney, as part of the 2012 Biennial; and Study #3 premiered at the MoMA, as part of Ralph Lemon's "Some sweet day" series. More than five years into her exploration of devotion, Michelson talks about needing to "get out" of the series and the process that has kept her going.

Sarah Michelson’s 4 is the final dance of the choreographer’s much-revered Devotion series. Along the way, she has explored dance icons, the historic and visceral residue of circles and triplets, and the deep, symbiotic relationship between dancer and choreographer. Michelson, who won the 2012 Bucksbaum Award for her Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer at the Whitney Biennial, returns to the fourth floor with four performers to trace a dancer’s devotion to its cellular level.

Could you talk about the progression of your Devotion series?
Devotion [2011, the Kitchen] happened and then Study #1 happened because the Whitney invited me to do something, and I knew I didn’t have enough time to start over and, also, I had so many questions about the show that I made. There was this prompt from the Whitney to [choreograph a dance for] the fourth floor. There were these questions that I had and then this prompt, and there it is. The same thing kind of happened with Ralph [Lemon who curated Michelson as part of “Some sweet day” at the Museum of Modern Art], where the dance was in the atrium, but the original prompt had nothing to do with MoMA and the atrium. The prompt was Ralph Lemon and blues music. I don’t think I would have ever gone to that place of soul without that prompt. I mean, of course, I have in my life. That’s where it came from, but I wouldn’t have necessarily taken Devotion down that street. So it’s very confusing whether it is or it is not pure. But I, of course, am giving purity my best shot all the time.

With this piece, did you know what you were going to do and—?
No, I still don’t know what I’m going to do. [Laughs] I have no idea what I’m going to do.

But it’s called 4, and it is the last section of Devotion?
In my understanding today, it’s the last section.

What does that mean? 
What it means is that I can’t do any more of this. I’ve gotta get out of this Devotion situation and, goddamn it, I seriously didn’t think in 2010 or whenever it was that I started on this that I would be still here in 2014. So yeah it’s time to get out. Not that I know where I’ll go. It’s gotta be the last one. Part of me has this feeling that the last one should be in the theater, so that’s why I’m struggling.

Why a theater?
Because I want to go back as I came out, and I’m ready to go back.

Do you just miss the theater or is there something more specific about the museum setting? 
I think the theater is like home. It’s not that I won’t go away again, but it’s time to go home for a bit. And the museum is—everyone is really great, really cooperative, so helpful. I’m doing things in relationship to those structures that I couldn’t have done any other way, and I’m so grateful in it, but it’s so huge. The amount of people involved. What you have to do to build a floor, what you have to do to get wiring, what you have to do to get lighting rentals, what you have to do to get the power—there are so many discussions. If you’re me. It doesn’t have to be the way I do it, by the way. But the way I do it, which is sadly the way I do it, is that it’s really complicated and huge. I love that; I wouldn’t do it any other way, or I don’t know how to do it any other way, but it does feel like I’ve just been out there for so long. The theater seems comforting, honestly. It’s like, Oh, there are the lights that are on the grid, and there’s the floor—it’s already there—there’s the staff and they already know what to do. And the negotiation is only between me and the theater.

Is it helpful to have such a big staff around taking care of things?
Every one of them is incredible, but I really struggle with it. I’m like X said something to Y, but I wasn’t on that e-mail. I’m like, Oh my God—you said that to each other? Why would you say that without me knowing about it? You need to tell me, because that’s not the right answer! [Laughs] I get tense. I live in this state of tension, because in the end, of course, I’m just such a controlling anal bitch, but the problem is that all those timed decisions are what make the thing, and when you’re out there in the place that isn’t the theater, there are just so many more decisions. What’s the seating, for example? Are they going to stand up? Are they going to sit on the floor? Just that. So in the Kitchen, maybe you move to the other side. But there’s seating and then you make choices about the seating. The atrium is one thing, because it’s expected that people will mill around, and maybe they’ll sit down and maybe they’ll stand up, but if you’re making a show at a museum with a showtime and a ticket, then you have to make a decision about what the people do when they get there. There are those kinds of interfaces: “Well, at MoMA people just came in…” And I’m like, “Yeah, and it was in the atrium, and people were walking around the whole museum. There was no ticket, meaning the ticket was the ticket to MoMA. It wasn’t a ticket to a show. This is a ticket to a show. There’s nothing really happening in the gallery at the time because it’s pre-Biennial. My show is basically happening while they’re starting to de-install and prepare for the Biennial.

Can you talk about what you’re doing with the space?
It’s on the fourth floor, where I was before, and it was very generously offered. I was like, What am I going to do? Go in a different room? No—I have to go back in that room. That’s the only brave thing to do.

What are you working on in this piece?
You can just ask people that? And then they answer you, don’t they? Fuck, I wish I was one of them.

How does this connect to the last piece?
I’ve been trying to understand it myself. You know very well how I went from Devotion to Study #1, and Cecilia [Bengolea] came in and we were working on circles; Nicole [Mannarino] came back in the room after I’d worked with Cecilia, and I realized I was already in a different place with these circles. That became Study #1—The American Dancer. When you’re doing something, you don’t have any perspective; you’re just doing what you’re doing. I was handling the subject of the minimalist period: of Cunningham leaving Martha Graham, of Lucinda Childs, of the complexity of Twyla that is in In the Upper Room. Or how I understand the complexity in that dance, of what is dancing? Of course, it’s all dancing, but looking at the different versions of In the Upper Room with her original company and then the program for TV with Jodi Melnick, and then ABT. I’m so impressed by the ballerina, but the “stompers” are the parts that I understand in this way that’s important. What was I doing? I was dealing with myself in relationship to these iconic movement strategies that those people developed and embodied in order to make a past for themselves. And then when we went to Study #1, it really felt like it had something to do with how only the dancer can do it. My daughter is in beginning modern fundamentals at the Mark Morris Dance Center, and on the first day I was, of course, watching like a hawk to see what it was like. They did triplets. There was some way [Study #1] was clearly the dancer and the American work and the triplet. Absolutely iconically. The quote [used with the title] is from Balanchine. [“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’s the choreographer and the dancer. In Study #3, the MoMA dance, I was trying to take away the choreographer in a way. It’s very hard to do.

But I felt that was so much about showing the connection between the dancer and choreographer. You were in the piece for me.
Totally. We would try to do that, but there was this very complicated almost engineering or metaphysics. There are these intense steps that are made up. It can’t be improvisation. There are steps; the way they had to happen was by choice, but I had to be the viewer. It sounds really stupid: I’m not going to send Nicole out there on her own, meaning I’m not going to leave her out there—I’m going to be with her as she has to do this very difficult task of being totally fresh in each moment and making this choice. Because it’s not like she could make any old choice: There’s a labyrinth of stuff she had to do, but she had to be able to do it freely, and I didn’t know what she was doing, so it had to be legible to me. And I’m, meanwhile, dealing with the music—I’m like accompanying her in some way.

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