Q&A: Sarah Michelson talks about her latest premiere

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

Like a DJ?
Yeah. It was almost like the dancer and the choreographer: the dancer’s intellectual ability or something, but now it’s the dancer’s devotion on a cellular level—just of the body. Just matter. It’s the attempt, I guess.

But I also saw that a lot in Study #3.
Totally, but this is more because there are fewer steps.

So now I’m going to have to watch the downtown dance world making nonsteps for the next two years?
I’m sorry. [Laughs] I know that’s going to suck for you. 

How many dancers are you using?
Four. Four for Study #4 on the fourth floor: Nicole Mannarino, Rachel Berman, Madeline Wilcox and John Hoobyar.

They’re all new to you except for Nicole. What were you looking for? How did you find them? 
I auditioned Super Bowl Sunday, according to Madeline. There were about 20 people. I thought that Study #3 was a work in progress, which is what I called it, and that we were going to make the real Study #3. I started working—for months. It was 20 and then it went down to ten, and I kind of let the big group go and there was a small group and the small group became six or seven. We worked for about six months. The attrition was at different places along the way.

So you worked with them for a long time! I didn’t realize.
Oh yeah. But one day I just realized, I can’t do this. I’m trying to make something I’ve already made. And the minute that happened, it was so disgusting: I was like, Oh my God. I basically said, “Bye, everybody.” Some people had gone along the way anyway because I think I was so unclear and confused. This is what I realized: each of the Devotion shows—working on Study #3 for all those months at Governors Island—a massive part of that project was the two of us in the void and not knowing what we were doing and then suddenly I was trying to teach them what she was doing, and it was so boring. They were good at it sometimes and sometimes not—it was so reductive—but a big problem was that the massive part was missing. There was no void. They were trying to learn something that already happened, and it was like, Oh, you can’t teach that, because the void has to be part of it. If the void isn’t part of it, they can’t do it. I was like, Oh, right, duh. And then it became this thing also with Nicole, where I didn’t want to see her come up against those movements anymore. She was kind of like a racehorse ready to go and I thought, God! I’ve got to stop this. She was improving herself and improving the movements—well, not improving them actually. I was like, I know this has to stop. We have to go to nothing. It was very hard for Nicole.
So people fell away?
People fell away. It was all super sweet and friendly with everybody. Everyone was totally awesome and then this happened and I had to go to the dancers and be like, everything we’ve been doing just went in the garbage. I told Nicole separately, and when I told the other three, it was cute: They were awesome. They loved it, but they wanted to be in the process. So that’s what happened. The way it slipped away in the end—I really believe in fate or something. I really like the people in the room. They’re great. They work so hard and are so dedicated and so smart and curious and humble and funny.
Why didn’t you want to do the same thing you had done before? Why did you feel that so strongly?
I think that when you realize you are improving or repeating something that you have done before or felt before or seen before, in my cellular, personal experience of being in the studio, there’s this overwhelming feeling of redundancy. I can’t honorably put my time toward this, because this has happened. We’ve seen that, we’ve felt that; no one needs to go to the theater and have that experience—I shouldn’t say no one, but I don’t need to have that experience with my time. I need to go to a place where I don’t know what’s happening, because that place is where the work is. If I am working in a place where I somehow do know where it is, and I’m trying to create that, then I’m matching a reality that already exists. It’s like Lego: I’m building something that already exists. Here’s the door, here’s the window and ultimately that just doesn’t feel honorable toward the quest of doing what I’m called to do. It seems like I have to do better than that. Who’s to say what the block size is? It exists. It’s prefabricated.
It’s easy to fall back on what you can do well or what gets you noticed.
Yeah. I feel like I can’t do that. I think it means that the show can be very, very bad. Of course it’s going to suck when I get that horrible New York Times review that we know is coming to me, and I’m going to feel vulnerable and shitty when people can read that about me in England or something, but in terms of everything else, I don’t care so much. I feel like the experiment I’m involved in is the right one. There’s a deadline and I’m going to be where I am with the experiment at that deadline, and I’m going to do my best to honor it at that time and let’s see what happens. I’m working, of course, like crazy, but I can’t patch it up. I can’t improve it. I’ve got to keep honing the experiment. I can’t go, “Oh! Why don’t you go to the corner and then do something?” I can’t make a choreographic fix. I’m doing everything from this kind of engineering—the dancers have this stuff that they do. There are a lot of choices about how and when they do it, but those choices aren’t free. [The choices] are through this electrical, ephemeral, engineering system, and what I have to do is keep on improving the system so that the thing can go as far as it needs to go. When it doesn’t, it’s horrible and some of that is execution on their part and some of that’s my naïveté with what we’re doing. I just keep trying to go at that, and it’s so in no-man’s-land that it’s hard to know.
You’ve made a system for all these pieces, right?
I definitely had a system like that for Study #3. Study #1 really was choreography. It was so organized.
But didn’t the system have to do with how a dancer had to approach every movement as being new?
Yeah, totally. And what I realized about that recently is that actually this whole thing started with Dover Beach.
Absolutely. You started to take control, and you began to think in terms of these systems. I think it was to make yourself comfortable with being in charge.
Yeah, yeah. I’m like, How can we do what we’ve never done before?

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