Four on the Floor

Claudia La Rocco on Sarah Michelson’s 4 at the Whitney Museum of American Art

Sarah Michelson, 4, 2014. Performance view, Whitney Museum of American Art, January 2014. Photo: Paula Court.

I saw Sarah Michelson’s 4 on Saturday, February 1 at 2 PM. This is some of what happened to me, while sitting for one hundred minutes on half of a round, backless cushion on the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art. It’s not so comfortable, to sit like that.

The audience arrives in tiers. Everyone walks across the raised and painted Masonite stage. There is no “offstage.” Barbara Bryan, Michelson’s manager, walks around in white jeans, converse, a sweatshirt tagged with SM’s familiar portrait, holding a walkie-talkie.

We face the elevators. There are the guards. The dancers’ silent escorts. And here come the dancers, hair plastered on top and fro’ed out behind, bare legs, big hoodies.

SM and her curator, Jay Sanders, read into mics: “This is the third and final Devotion. […] There was a fourth, at the Museum of Modern Art.”

The dancers stand in corridors built into the audience. One runs to the middle of the room, faces the guards, back to us. A diver’s beginning, preparation for a jump. Relevé, deep lunge. Again and again. Fantastic. Somersault. “Proust […] Milton […] Remembrances of Things Past,” they read. The expanse of floor. Olympics. American athleticism. Futility.

An elevator opens. The couple has to stay inside. The elevator closes.

The somersault makes its own rhythm.

1. Yeah yeah. You’ve seen a million somersaults, what’s so special about this one? Maybe nothing. Maybe you’re unmoved. But it seems to me that Sarah Michelson’s art, her idea of devotion, is predicated on the idea of effort being immovable itself, in the face of any disinterest. Any dissent. It’s a variant on modernism. “Your work and diligence and bravery are this work,” she says in the program to four of her dancers: Rachel Berman, Nicole Mannarino, Madeline Wilcox, and John Hoobyar. (A fifth—James Tyson, who has appeared in the prior three episodes of the “Devotion” series—is here, again, something of an outlier.) The immovability of an extreme effort to attain what can never be held. Either you find that compelling, or, well, there’s the elevator, right across the cavernous, raised, painted floor. And there are the guards, diligently waiting. And there, apparently, Michelson will be to raise her hand and say, “Hold,” and halt the performance for the length of time it takes you to get out of the way.

Crazy lunge in fourth position. Pop songs about love and loss. I remember a college professor talking about black pop music, how it began to make sense to him once he thought of it as black people singing not to lovers, but to America, addressing a history. What is black music? Ralph Lemon (who by chance, is sitting next to me) asked Michelson to think about this when making Devotion Study #3 at MoMA: It was his not-so-secret secret curatorial prompt.

Florence Griffith Joyner. Starting blocks. Hair both slicked and wild. Exalted.

A conversation with modernism. SM sits in paint-stained sweats, sneaks, hoodie. The author. Overkill. Or false note, along with the paint-splattered floor?

Sarah Michelson, 4, 2014. Performance view, Whitney Museum of American Art, January 2014. Nicole Mannarino and Rachel Berman. Photo: Paula Court.

A second elevator opens. More people. A guard’s arm reaches out, a human gate. Onstage: Horrible pale blue leotard. High neck. Full sleeve. A dancer crucified, but there’s no cross. SM and JS conversation repeats and repeats and repeats.

You wait for something to snap. Gunshot. Hands as trigger. Something of, not about.

A conversation across disciplines. “It’s not always going to be about good behavior.” The severity and push of the poses onstage, the inane chatter of its maker and curator just offstage. Yoga, Cunningham, ballet, sport, street fight. White leg warmers, lights dim, turn off. Scale. Almost not audible song: “I feel so sad and lonely,” The guards are lit. Thinking of the poor guards having to wear sunglasses while enduring that Jenny Holzer show. Thinking of the guard who just died, who the Whitney memorialized. There are black orthopedic shoes tacked to the wall near the elevator; I thought they were guard’s shoes, my friend wondered if they were Merce’s. Work rendered visible. Class. Labor.

2. And, of course, reading the program after the show, I see that the performance is dedicated to the memory of that guard, Cecil Weekes, and to the artist Ellen Cantor. The shoes, I’m later told, belonged to Weekes. Everything is personal in Michelson’s work; there is that cherished art tradition, the long-cultivated cult of personality, the seams of which sometimes fray, never convincingly enough one way or the other. Again the script she and Sanders read lunges around, slamming into poetry, sort-of philosophy, sincerity, twaddle, moments of beauty, etc. It is often insanely irritating. Richard Maxwell is the author, or is he? Who’s in charge? What about this well-known (tired?) maneuver, the juxtaposition of disparate materials? Just whose side are you on, anyway? And who picked the teams?

Dancer in a dark blue leotard. 360 degree turns. Quotations—phrasework, music—from the MoMA piece. That bent over, witchy pose, the dancer clasping the back of her thighs, as if refusing to take up space. As if intending to take it all. Sanders reads: “There aren’t many female choreographers and directors who can afford to be sentimental like you can.” Wait, what? “248. 186. 259,” SM reading numbers aloud. The arm out. The body tautly sinking. The girl dimly spotlit. James prancing around the perimeter: Year of the Horse. Dressage.

Her works are like novels or serial TV shows; should you invest in every new character?

Team America. George Balanchine. Immigrant kitsch. Gold, white, and blue unitards. The female form rendered at once heroic and sexual. As well absurd—comic book gestures. Next to me, growing louder, Ralph Lemon’s laughter; others take permission. SM rises to pick up hoodies strewn about the stage by the dancers. Tidying up. Her face like a run-down, put-upon housewife. And then that tattoo.

3. Michelson, like Balanchine, is in conversation with an adopted country. Certain American things are held up like found objects, given the wrinkled nose, or lit with delight. Both are pitched into this romantic idea of American athleticism, space, and freedom. And innocence? And of course Michelson is in conversation with Balanchine, and that tiny pantheon of twentieth century giants—Cunningham, Rainer, Tharp, oh my. In 2014, optimism is a tricky and elusive thing.

Punishing. Slo-mo somersaulting. “I don’t want to hear it, there’s nothing to say.” SM watches and sings along; the song plays from her iPhone’s tinny speakers, held up to the microphone.

Phillip Glass’s “Dance IX” plays, loud. From Tharp’s In the Upper Room. Devotion to history and to failure—the love in that.

Balanchine—you put a man and a girl on stage, there’s already a story; a man and two girls, a plot.

Sarah Michelson, 4, 2014. Performance view, Whitney Museum of American Art, January 2014. James Tyson and Nicole Mannarino. Photo: Paula Court.

Such old-fashioned show biz manipulation. The marks on their backs, the imprint of past somersaults pressed redly into the flesh. Mortal Coil. Woman before man. A row of lights shining whitely.

The Glass cuts out. Low funk, and the slow somersault. The clocks are stopped. “You thought love would last forever, you were wrong.” Nicole out leaping. Think of Eleanor Hullihan from the previous Whitney show. Please tell me these dancers have workers’ comp.

The thoroughbreds get put out to pasture. Betty Wright on the speakers: “Girls, you can’t do what the guys do, no. And still be a lady.”

4. No good to compare dancers to horses, of course. There is this way in which the women, in particular, are made into things. They are themselves. (I missed Hullihan fiercely in this work, also Rebecca Warner—both are ghosts in it, along with many others.) But they are also laboring under such a yoke—and here the idea of the master, in all senses of the word, reins tightly tightly held. I think I agree with what SM says in the program about these individuals, and especially these women: “Your work and diligence and bravery are this work.” Is there daylight between their devotion and hers?

Form pushed past form.

And now the dancers bend, put palm to ground. Group hug. A figure wearing a horse head joins them.

SM: “I reserve the right not to connect the dots regarding her.”

SM has her muses, as did GB. It always ends. It always isn’t there anymore. “She isn’t real and she remains a dream to make.” Richard Maxwell. The woman’s voice, and the man’s. The body defiant in the face of time’s weight.

Horse out, lying down. Field of action. Will the green numbers on the scoreboard clear? SM: “This right here used to be the kind of place we could all gather and find peace.”

Yes. The numbers reach zero. The horse, reclining, does not acknowledge our applause. Which, in any case, is not for him.

Sarah Michelson, 4, 2014. Performance view, Whitney Museum of American Art, January 2014. Photo: David Velasco.

Sarah Michelson’s 4 ran January 24–February 2, 2014, at the Whitney Museum of American Art.