Game On

Claudia La Rocco on Sarah Michelson’s tournamento at the Walker Art Center

Sarah Michelson, tournamento, 2015. Performance view, Walker Art Center, September 25, 2015. Hawaii (Rachel Berman). Photo: David Velasco.

IT’S A FUNNY THING to spend five hours with something and not know how you feel about it. This is especially true when it’s someone else’s thing, that you have ostensibly, or so convention holds, been invited in to witness.

Sarah Michelson’s four-day tournamento took over the Walker Art Center’s William and Nadine McGuire Theater last week. I was in attendance for only the final hours on Sunday, starting with two-and-a-half hours of afternoon activities that began at 4 PM, followed by the last official show, which began at 7.

But “activities” isn’t quite right here, and neither is “show.” Better to leave out the categories for now and stick to observable details (and here I’m tempted to sub “facts” for “details,” but no):

Four main players enter the stage-as-arena at staggered times, representing their home states: Rachel Berman in red for Hawaii, John Hoobyar in green for Oregon, Jennifer Lafferty in blue for California (specifically, Southern California), Nicole Mannarino in yellow for Ohio. They are all on some spectrum from drawn to spent, save for Berman, who seems cloaked in protective youth. Each is flanked by a duo of young teamsters, often beautifully awkward, who sub on and off the floor, yelling “thank you” when they exit the stage at a heavy run, and otherwise bouncing, gesticulating, echoing, and keeping their eyes laser-beamed on their respective player as said player cycles through distinct but related steps and phrases, recognizable to those familiar with Michelson’s stew of Cunningham, ballet, yoga, athletics, yells, witchy hand gestures, and the like.

Sarah Michelson, tournamento, 2015. Walker Art Center, September 25, 2015. Photo: Gene Pittman.

The players are intensely, mostly inwardly focused, going over their movements again and again and again. At times they function like parentheticals in a space rendered visually and aurally chaotic by a plethora of video screens (showing hand-drawn portraits and myth-making “rehearsal” footage of those on stage), score cards, variously low and loud soul and disco, digital timers and scores, on-stage bleachers dotted with audience members, lighting equipment, a long black platform, the loud calls of scorekeepers, and Michelson’s trademark neon portraits. Three soigné judges—Madeline Wilcox, Danielle Goldman, and James Tyson—sit at a table stage left, calling out coded messages and evaluating according to recondite criteria.

Overseeing it all, her back to the tiered seating, is Michelson, a coach-as-god figure who from a table full of MacBooks and mixing consoles manipulates the music (and the videos?), voices color and play-by-play commentary, gives whispered consultations, and periodically, almost obscenely scream-growls “Let’s play!” into a gold microphone. She wears a black jumpsuit decorated with the “LIFE | DANCE | DEATH” Venn-diagram logo of The Bureau for the Future of Choreography, evoking an alternate-universe dance Olympics. The logo is a starkly humorous choice given the Bureau’s eschewal of individual ownership versus Michelson’s cult of authorship.

And, finally, there is a winner, a high-scorer. And it all ends abruptly a little after 9 PM, unceremoniously, predictably: We’re finished, you all do what you want, you watchers, this wasn’t for you in the first place.

There is much more to describe, but perhaps you get the picture. (Other maybe-helpful references: old time gladiators and their present-day reenactments such as The Hunger Games and American Gladiators, arcane sporting events full of hunched-over old men keeping obsessive box scores.) It’s pure theater, at its most alienating; dance-theater as the occasion for “pure” dance as Trojan Horse. Questions of agency and control and power sprawl messily throughout the theater, all the brutal hierarchies we like to ignore at our art spectacles, and I find myself thinking of Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty (2011), specifically as she interrogates consent, and the myriad condescensions of the audience member toward the performer: “The question of whether it is ever cruel to do unto someone what she would like you to do unto her—or at least what she has authorized having done unto her—remains alive.” I can’t tell if the stakes are way too high, or not nearly high enough. And I think that maybe I really hated tournamento, and that this (the hating) doesn’t matter. I stayed for all those hours… and so, really, what or who did I actually find loathsome in the end?

Sarah Michelson, tournamento, 2015. Walker Art Center, September 23, 2015. Seated, left to right: Madeline Wilcox, Danielle Goldman, James Tyson; standing, left to right: Destiny Anderson, Margaret Skelly, Nicole Mannarino. Photo: Gene Pittman.

And this all leads me to Ralph Lemon: “I think the violence becomes part of what the agreement is about.”

That was Lemon reading the night after tournamento ended, as part of Scaffold Room: (Memory) Refraction #1, to mark the one-year anniversary of The Walker acquiring Scaffold Room. I don’t have the mandate right now to do any kind of justice to this Refraction, so I can only say that it makes breathing feel possible, and at the same time makes clear my unending grubby audience need to be seduced, and throws into stark illumination Michelson’s middle finger (which maybe, probably, is only my [mis]perception, revealing a more insidious need) on that front.

The Lemon–Michelson conversation has been in high gear for awhile now, some of it spinning off his invitation to have her present work as part of his “Some sweet day” series in 2012 at the Museum of Modern Art, with the not-so-secret nudge that participants consider the question “What is black music?” And, finally, Lemon’s Refraction that night was—I think I can claim this—still reverberating with Blackness and Nonperformance, the madly dizzying reading Fred Moten delivered at MoMA last Friday, in which consent and refusal and bodies and time swirled just out of (my) reach in his three-dimensional idea web. (Does it matter that both Lemon and Michelson, in Minneapolis, presented their muses [yes, that word] in moments of wild crying breakdown? Matter to what, to whom?)

And but so. The winner of tournamento is Hawaii: 4135 inscrutable points to Ohio’s 4107, despite Ohio’s sublime incandescent off-the-railsness, her T-shirt and short-shorts (so many ways for short shorts to fit and gorgeously not fit so many asses) soaked through, her skin glistening and nipples reading ever-more-clearly through the drenched fabric. If there is a winner, it follows, there must be a loser—but that’s in the theater that is sports, not art. Here we’re all left with something else entirely. If there can be any agreement, is it that (ultimately? for now?) that’s what it’s all about, for all of us, this pursuit of the elusive something else? To end, with apologies, with the inevitable: Let’s play.

Sarah Michelson’s tournamento ran September 24–27, 2015 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Sarah Michelson, tournamento, 2015. Performance view, Walker Art Center, September 25, 2015.