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Claudia La Rocco on Sarah Michelson's September2017/\ at Bard College

Sarah Michelson, September2017/\, 2017. Performance view, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Annandale-On-Hudson, New York, September 22, 2017. Madeline Wilcox. Photo: Paula Court.

THIS IS THE THIRD TIME I’m writing here about Sarah Michelson’s work, following 4 in 2014 and tournamento in 2015. Now comes September2017/\, which I saw September 24 at Bard, and which was the culmination of a four-year residency Michelson had with students there. Culmination is the wrong word, but I can’t think of the right one.

I didn’t explicitly address those first two pieces to anyone, though of course there was a particular person I was writing to, and for. I’m thinking now of how Michelson has said she makes her dances for four people, herself included; it’s something, like many things she’s said, that she takes flack for, but that also, if we’re being honest, feels true and pretty great. Even four gazes in your head when you’re making something is damn crowded, no?

I’m stalling a little, maybe (though I think that all of this pertains, and I think my editor does too with his talk of this “tiny devoted audience” for SM’s work, to end the essay he wrote to end Sarah Michelson: “As always, only the hard core remain”).

What can I tell you about September2017/\, by which I mean the September2017/\ I saw. This was on a Sunday, so it was only a little more than two hours in length, no live streaming of the Stanley Love Thursday–Saturday performance at the Kitchen tacked on at the end, as I hear happened in the other performances. This is by far the best work with students I’ve ever seen. (The cast was a mix of these students, dancers who have been with SM for a while, people who I am guessing are on the technical and janitorial crew at Bard, and, thrillingly, Michelson herself.) It wasn’t the most engrossing experience I’ve had inside of Michelson’s world, but weeks later I am still thinking about it.

Sarah Michelson, September2017/\, 2017. Performance view, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Annandale-On-Hudson, New York, September 22, 2017. Madeline Wilcox and Sarah Michelson. Photo: Paula Court.

The first audience members walked out at the seventeen-minute mark, but attrition overall was lower than one might expect. Perhaps Michelson’s reputation finally precedes her. By then, we had watched Michelson move, really move, crouching and lunging and hunching and bending deeply at the waist and whistling and muttering/whispering/yelling through phrases like “this is not a literal hello.” She was dressed in skinny black jeans, a loose black short-sleeved button-up shirt, and white sneakers, and could’ve been the love child of a punk rocker and a witch, like a Macbeth witch, someone who means business.

And then we watched Rachel Berman roller skate around the stage, her hair down, her clothes minimal, her skates the old-fashioned white kind with pink wheels. Turning and pumping deeply, as Michelson worked a series of controls and noisemakers at her director’s station, and as she communicated with Madeline Wilcox, who was operating as a caller of some sort. A call-and-response between these two women with words, and Berman with movement, letters and numbers punctuated by a small number of short phrases, repeated and manipulated until they took on a totem-like meaning. Yesss Bunneeeee.

And then those two audience members got the hell out of there, and Wilcox moved from caller to dancer. And then things got really intense. Not in a movement way, as has been the case in most of her pieces for me, as in I find myself preoccupied by thoughts of the long-term wellbeing of the executioners of Michelson’s demanding work. But in a psychosexual physical way, in terms of the perverse intimacy on spectacular (theatrical?) display between Michelson and Wilcox, as Wilcox called out again and again and again—“Hold.” “Back off.” “Peace.”—stretching the syllables sometimes beyond recognition, and Michelson echoed and extorted and cajoled in these same words, winding and hovering around Wilcox’s often still, often pinup-posed body, at times gently thwacking her thighs or midsection with a handheld appendage. At one corner of the stage, sometimes barely or not at all visible, stood a man, also watching, like we were watching, another witness to a thing that seemed to exist paradoxically because of and despite its witnesses. The white female body on full display, in all its loathsome beauty.

But that Brit girl can make a dance! Whitest choreography I’ve ever seen. A new black.

That’s what Ralph Lemon’s lover tells him in the dream, in “B-Sides,” another essay in Michelson’s stark black-and-white (no pictures, just pages and ink) new book (in which he also calls “bullshit” on Michelson’s claim to making dances for four people, a claim she made to him originally). I don’t read this essay till after I’ve seen September2017/\, but I’m thinking of Lemon the whole way through, or thinking of him periodically, and then thinking of him hard at moments, maybe for example the moment when Michelson’s dance opens (pauses? ruptures?) to include a short work by Bard student Jaleel Green, a work that features the only Black bodies onstage that night, students earnestly dancing a contemporary dance in the television-meaning of contemporary, another universe from Sarah Michelson contemporary.

“The base query is something I’ve said a lot—What is a dance? What is a contemporary dance? Why would one make one? Why would one impale oneself on those questions?”

These are Michelson’s questions, as related by Siobhan Burke in her New York Times preview.

Sarah Michelson, September2017/\, 2017. Performance view, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Annandale-On-Hudson, New York, September 22, 2017. Rebecca Capper and Joanna Warren. Photo: Paula Court.

What do we do with the insert of Green’s aesthetic? I’m not sure. Everyone in the long car ride home from Bard debated it; no conclusions reached. Some people found it offensive, deeply problematic along racial lines, power hierarchies. I see that. But it isn’t what I felt while watching. I felt Michelson’s deep devotion (always that word) to those who devote themselves to movement. I felt her cult of personality, her will (need?) to claim and mark and extend territory and lineage. September2017/\ contains not the usual Michelson logos, at least not that I saw, but piles of the Movement Research Performance Journal, many bearing the faces of her kin—Ralph Lemon, Jennifer Monson—as well the usual quotations, chiefly, I think, Merce Cunningham’s dances. And Stanley Love at The Kitchen, which Michelson helped organize. And an abrupt, raw ending to the dance with an announcement by Barbara Bryan that dance scholar nezhat hafezi (1993–2017) had passed away.

And maybe, also, there was a commentary on how being asked to make work in certain settings can feel like being set up to fail, and a refusal to play nicely, to play by the rules. Or maybe I’m projecting.

Jesus, I’m well over one thousand words and there is so much more to say. I mean I haven’t even gotten to Chippy and Kitty and Puppy, the roles rounding out Bunny, and to the other room, where Jennifer Lafferty performed an unbelievably ferocious solo, for and with Michelson, who was watching from a black director’s chair of sorts (that blocked most of my view), silent by this time, miming out her commands instead to another performer. Or to Joanna Warren’s languid, fluid, almost distracted solo that bookended the performance and copped a good deal from Cunningham. Also there were potted plants and a door on wheels that led to nowhere and a girl meowing periodically, and then dry ice or something or other coming out of a trashcan on our way out.

I’m not sure what else to say. I won’t be at The Kitchen this week for October2017/\. Maybe you’ll write me back and tell me all about it.

Sarah Michelson’s September2017/\ ran September 22–24, 2017 at the LUMA Theater at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in Annandale-On-Hudson, New York. Michelson’s October2017/\ runs Wednesday, October 18 through Saturday, October 21 at 6:30 PM at the Kitchen in New York.