PRINT May 2012

David Velasco

Sarah Michelson, Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer, 2012. Performance view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, February 26, 2012. Nicole Mannarino. Photo: Paula Court.


HERE IS A BODY: Nicole Mannarino—arms open, Afro teased, hippie-angelic in her electric-blue jumpsuit (kimono sleeves, plunging V-neck divulging everything in glimpses)—drenched head to toe in sweat. Hers was a nitty-gritty body, a devoted body, on full display, taking it all in and giving it up with a grace and equanimity that carved straight to the heart of the show.

This was my take-home image from the 2012 Whitney Biennial. Mannarino, a performer in Sarah Michelson’s Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer, 2012, was at once singular and emblematic in a Biennial shot through with bodies (devoted bodies, sacrificial bodies, cybernetic bodies, occupying bodies). Bodies are more often the subject of public-programming departments, and the ascendance of these departments in museums across the country signals a new protocol in the ways in which we ourselves are shot through, organized and tantalized. As dance artist Mårten Spångberg observed in a recent talk at MoMA PS1, events and performance series mean return visits, and attendance is a museum scorecard for success. His formulation at first seems cynical, but it also stakes a claim for the brute value of performance in institutional settings: “It’s not we who need the museums,” he argues. “It’s the museums that need us.”

Biennial curators Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders made the performing arts a central—perhaps the central—concern, dedicating more than two-thirds of the museum’s eight-thousand-plus-square-foot fourth floor, its grandest, to a white-cube black box for dance (Michelson and Michael Clark), music (the Red Krayola, Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran), theater (Richard Maxwell and . . . Kai Althoff?), and everything in between (“a survey of listening” by Arika). Artists in this category were given a series of scheduled shows as well as a public “residency” in the museum, during which the floor would be “active and open to visitors.” (Whereas Dawn Kasper’s residency on the third floor was self-authored, affirming artistic autonomy, the fourth-floor performers’ was contrived, making a zoo of “process”: staged lessons, warm-ups, rehearsals.)

Sussman and Sanders’s use of the fourth floor in one sense pays homage to the Whitney’s building as a single, self-contained entity: The performing arts are not relegated to some peripheral, off-site program as they have been in past Biennials but are put front and center inside the institution, thus consolidating the hermetic coherence of the museum. But as the show looked inward it also looked forward, anticipating the Renzo Piano–designed building downtown in the meatpacking district, due to open in 2015. If one of the mandates of Yoshio Taniguchi’s redesigned Museum of Modern Art was that it accommodate Richard Serra’s cranky Cor-Ten steel, the new Whitney is prioritizing our devoted bodies. As the museum’s director, Adam Weinberg, puts it in the Biennial’s catalogue, “Most of all, we’re thinking about the entire building being performance ready.” (When asked, the Whitney referred to a new multiuse black-box space and a 170-seat on-site theater, as well as to a flexible lighting system in the gallery ceilings.)

Of course, Weinberg is quick to add that the Whitney’s inhospitable Breuer building has been “commandeered . . . no matter what” for all sorts of intrepid performances. I think immediately of such works from the early 1970s as Trisha Brown’s equipment pieces and Yvonne Rainer’s Continuous Project—Altered Daily, 1970, both of which had definitive iterations at Breuer’s then-new building. Museums have never been made for dance, though plenty of dances have been made for museums. Against the odds, these intractable temples to painting and sculpture have inspired significant dance work. In fact, one might argue that it’s because of these odds: that many memorable museum dances have been animated by this “no matter what” scenario. How do the stakes change when we remove the rub? Can the rub be removed? What will performance look like in the performer-friendly building of the future? Will it look like stuff staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music? The Kitchen? The Whitney?

In any case, the penultimate Breuer Biennial pulled off a coup. Michelson and Clark have gotten cozy with museums in the past, but this is the most ambitious commissioning of new dance undertaken for an institution-based survey exhibition I know of. Though Clark and Michelson each came into their own artistically under very different circumstances—Clark was London’s adulated enfant terrible in the 1980s, whereas Michelson’s dances emerged from New York’s rich “downtown” scene in the early 2000s—it bears noting that both choreographers were born in Britain in the early ’60s, roughly the same time that the Breuer building was conceived and constructed. Michelson made this era very much a part of her piece, suffusing her work with all sorts of ’60s apparitions and adumbrating the building’s floor plan onto the white Masonite surface on which her performers danced.

Michael Clark, WHO’S ZOO?, 2012. Performance view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 28, 2012. Photo: Paula Court.

Michelson belongs to a generation of choreographers who, in the tradition of their Judson-era forebears, work against the etiolating economies of dance based on companies, trademark techniques, and repertory. Which isn’t to say there’s no aesthetic or conceptual continuity among Michelson’s works: “Signatures” appear via iconography—which reads as visual branding, jokes on the “genius artist” paradigm—and a formal nesting, in which certain choreographic elements are reused from piece to piece. Rather than reproduce a dance proper, Michelson will occasionally make sequels or site-specific elaborations. Her work for the Biennial followed in this vein, growing out of her brilliant Devotion, which was first presented in January 2011 at the Kitchen in New York. Devotion Study #1, which ran March 1–11 of this year, was built entirely with phrase work used in the original Devotion; in particular, it devolved on a single piece of choreographic material—a circle pattern comprising four backward triplets—that occurred only briefly, about an hour into the earlier piece. Actually, I’m being a bit disingenuous here: The basic “premise” of the movement was a triplet—a conventional, hieratic mode of traveling across space, consisting of a plié and two steps in relevé—but there are triplets and then there are triplets, and Michelson’s piece involved a continual perversion of the triplet form as well as seemingly endless permutations of the circle. With a few small exceptions, these triplet-y circles were the sole movement performed by the five dancers in the literally elliptical, ninety-minute reductio ad absurdum Devotion Study #1.

As in Devotion, the movement was juxtaposed, at beginning and end, with a live reading of a script written by Richard Maxwell (whose own work appeared on the fourth floor April 25–29). The text for Devotion, read by Michelson alone in that piece, was a lyrical blending of inscrutable biographical detail and racy takes on the organizing male-female principles (Adam and Eve, Jesus and Mary) at the heart of Judeo-Christian mythology. In Devotion Study #1, the beginning text was read live by Michelson and Sanders, seated in the audience and dressed in black leotards. It largely comprised a highly mannered, “confessional” dialogue about artmaking, prefaced by a nod to the last work, read by Sanders qua Maxwell: “How has life been since the show we worked on together, Devotion?”

Mannarino was the first of the five dancers to emerge and the last to leave. In total, she spent more than an hour hammering out those backward “triplets.” A metronome kept time; one foot landed on each beat. A number of writers have commented on the dance’s repetitive nature. But this idea of “repetition” presumes that each triplet or circle constituted its own phrase, or indeed that each step was the same. Rather, it seems to me that the dancers’ seamless (phased?) presentation of the circles, and the rigorously observed, impossible-seeming marking (what were their cues?), defied any conventional notion of phrase work as such. The circle action was not so much repetitive as it was relentless. Homeostasis reigned: Just when you couldn’t stand watching one body, another would walk in to distract you with its circles. There was continual tension, occasional release, but no climax or sameness. It wasn’t at all boring, but it could be antagonizing. People didn’t fall asleep; they left.

A certain Minimalist piety suffused the space: the white room, the metronome, the mellow, ambient soundscapes, the spinning women, the academic trivia about phrase work. But Mannarino is a beautiful shock in that ridiculous disco getup, and there’s that strange, neon outline of Michelson’s head on the east wall and the misogynistic, pot-brain text and that intern in the horse head and all sorts of enigmatic irritants and inside jokes that pollute the baseline purgatorial vibe with their weird and insistent specificity. Somehow it all adds up to a porous but uncompromising vision that, even as it cribs and nods, plays by its own rules.

The differences among the individual performers mapped a logic of virtuosity immanent to the piece. Here, a dancer’s skill was not necessarily contingent on his or her level of training; the dancers’ order of entrance and exit correlated to their ability to work out the dance’s choreographic animus. (Michelson talks about it in terms of the dancers’ “naturalness” with regard to the movement.) This isn’t to say that training doesn’t matter per se, or that it doesn’t register in the dancers’ carriage, ability, capacity for endurance, etc., but it is not in itself a determining factor. Most anyone could do these circles (indeed, one of the dancers, James Tyson, had no formal dance training), but to do them well required single-minded perseverance and a skill set that transcended any easy model of virtuosity.

Sarah Michelson, Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer, 2012. Performance view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, February 26, 2012. Nicole Mannarino. Photo: Paula Court.

Clark’s 2012 WHO’S ZOO? (March 28–April 8), on the other hand, bought into external logics of virtuosity, perpetuating ancien régime hierarchies segregating “trained” and “untrained” bodies. The piece, an entertaining but largely inconsequential sequel to his more ambitious th, 2011, at Tate Modern in London, consisted of seven vignettes choreographed to music by Jarvis Cocker and his bands, Pulp and Relaxed Muscle. During the second week of the run, Clark added a coda and Cocker himself performed live onstage, electrifying the dance even as he undid it. (Cocker essentially stole the show.) A brief but salient moment featured a group of forty-some “nondancers,” unpaid volunteers with “no previous formal dance training,” who had applied via open call and who learned and publicly rehearsed their movement on the fourth floor in the two weeks preceding WHO’S ZOO?’s debut.

The “nondancers” performed a “mass choreographic action”—a sort of zombie line dance—to Pulp’s 1995 anthem “F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.” The resonance with the “thirty-two any old wonderful people” critic Jill Johnston registered in Steve Paxton’s Satisfyin’ Lover, 1967, is striking, but the effect couldn’t have been more different. In juxtaposition with Clark’s Hollywood-ready dancers, this mob of volunteers was a humble, devoted corps de ballet, a support to the superstructure of Clark’s company. As such, it dramatized the flaw of the Biennial’s performance “residencies”—itself an empty gesture toward the well-intentioned but often compromising “participation” and “accessibility” encouraged by public-programming and education departments. When Clark’s brilliant dancer Harry Alexander, in a sleek orange unitard, joined hoi polloi and followed along, en pointe, it read as a parody of the flock’s gestures; later, in the final act, Clark’s gifted company again echoed this “mass-action” choreography, this time with stylish flourishes, to similarly trivializing effect. This sort of thing might play in monarch-happy London, but in New York, we’ve still got a taste for revolution.

David Velasco is editor of and a regular contributor to Artforum.