PRINT January 2014


THIS MONTH, choreographer Sarah Michelson will present her new work, 4, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Artforum invited David Velasco to examine the long arc of her oeuvre and the groundbreaking performances that have led to her most recent investigations into dance, place, and form.

“THE PLACE WHERE THE WORK WILL HAPPEN IS pretty much always my starting point,” Sarah Michelson has said. But when the Manchester, UK–born choreographer moved to New York in the late 1980s, that starting point was already split, multiplying. In 1989, a friend took Michelson to see a John Jesurun play at the Kitchen. Jesurun had twisted the space around and made it all fucked up, but Michelson didn’t know that yet because it was her first time. She didn’t know yet that this would be the first of many proliferating sites she would learn and inhabit, and where she would produce some of the most significant dance work to occur in the early years of the new millennium. It was simply the first theater she went to in New York, and when she left she had “a strong memory of that place, and of walking from west to east after that show. . . .”

It’s March 2003, and the Kitchen is twisted around again—flipped. Black Masonite floors, black brick walls, exposed lighting tracks—still the same. But everything else is off. The seats are on the wrong side, the bleachers crowded against the building’s south side so that they face north, toward the theater’s entrance. There’s no decor, just an elevated sound booth upstage, to the west, and a platform stacked with chairs—phantoms of the erstwhile audience—upstage, east. You walk across the black stage to find your seat, and then there you are, looking back at where you’d so often been before.

The dance, Shadowmann: Part I, has already begun: A fragment from the beginning of Uriah Heep’s “The Shadows and the Wind” plays on repeat, an overture, while five young girls dressed in T-shirts and minidresses emblazoned with Dolce & Gabbana logos stand scattered like sentries across the stage. When everyone’s seated, the girls crowd in a downstage corner, repoussoir, and begin a slow, repetitive dance that a serious Kitchen habitué might know: Michelson’s Grivdon at the Grivdon Concrete, 2002.

Two attendants are posted at the front doors. They swing them open, and powerful HMI lights outside illuminate West Nineteenth Street. Two women in yellow jackets, white stockings, and high heels appear on the doorstep across the street and begin walking toward you until they reach the lobby. There, they lie down, take off their shoes, and pitch them back outside. A truck passes. And then: fierce crossings, ritualistic battements, stiffened diagonals, fog, cinematic lighting. It is a mad, precise dance that, in addition to claiming space outside the building, expands to fill the whole of the Kitchen. Dancers dance in the lobby, the corners, the control room upstairs. (The core dancers commandeering the space are, in addition to Michelson, Jennifer Howard, Mike Iveson, Parker Lutz, Tanya Uhlmann, and Greg Zuccolo.) An older man—no doubt familiar to many in the audience, for he is a frequent spectator at downtown performances—stands on the mezzanine above the front doors, presiding over and sometimes seemingly even conducting the movement below, reaching down in an exaggerated scooping gesture that, minutes later, metastasizes and convulses through the dancers. “I . . . am . . . Henry . . . Baumgartner,” intones a voice over the speakers, and then the lights shine so bright they blind you; the doors, which have been used for entrances and exits throughout the performance, swing open again; and the D&G Grivdon girls walk out toward the sidewalk and into a white limousine, which pulls away into the night, heading east. “Maybe they’re on their way to P.S.122,” writes Deborah Jowitt in the Village Voice.

Shadowmann: Part II, held a couple of weeks later at P.S.122’s smaller theater space, is a quieter, intimate dance—a kernel of Part I. There’s white carpet on the floor, kitschy floral drapes along the walls. The costumes are less fetishistic, more boudoir. Many of the movement phrases—rapid-fire karate chops, one-legged chair poses—that form the skeleton of Part I return, but here they also seem to retreat, like a star collapsing in on itself. There’s more stasis, kneeling, contact, touching among the dancers. It’s cramped, and they spend less time crossing the space—where would they go? After about forty minutes, the drapes are pulled back to reveal a tiny girl in a gossamer blue tunic dancing on a platform outside the window. Iveson, Lutz, Paige Martin, Michelson, and Zuccolo have formed a tight pack near the fire exit. Iveson screams and they pour out the door; we see them through the window walking solemnly in a procession down the street. Maybe they’re on their way home.

It is wrong to ever say that a dance is “about” something. (When asked what one of his dances was about, George Balanchine would often deadpan: “About twenty-eight minutes.”) Such assertions encourage the fantasy that dance should function according to the same logics and rhythms as a television pilot, that the mechanics of movement and choreography might in fact bear some resemblance to the operations of plot. But Shadowmann: Part I is about something. It is about place.

One of the many radical premises of Shadowmann: Part I is that it makes the Kitchen itself, and furthermore the audience of the Kitchen and the loose network of dancers and artists comprising the broader, intercontinental “downtown” dance world, subjects of the work. The theater having flipped on its axis, we are quite literally facing ourselves. We use the same entrance and exit as the dancers. One of our “own,” the critic Henry Baumgartner, is among the performers, guiding, watching, prompting; and another dance that happened there, Grivdon at the Grivdon Concrete, lives again. We look back and see a history of dances behind us, our comings and goings, and one could imagine a young woman arriving at the Kitchen in 1989, just three years after it had moved from SoHo to Chelsea, to see a show by John Jesurun, not yet knowing how imbricated her life and this place would become.

Part II both sustains the premise of Part I and elaborates it, drawing a line between east and west Manhattan—a psychosocial topography—that also defines for a while the contingent, ambiguous world of downtown dance. The work as a whole points to a dialogue between the Kitchen’s somewhat tonier, more remote black-box space and the grittier East Village bastion P.S.122, which is home court for many dancer-choreographers affiliated with the downtown milieu. “Shadowmann’s aesthetic stems from a closely observed world of thirty-somethings living in confined quarters in urban enclaves where creativity and dreams battle the banality of ordinary life,” RoseLee Goldberg writes in her Artforum review. These “confined quarters” of 2003 are a long way from the shabby yet capacious SoHo lofts that served as the spatial and psychological ground zero for much of the New York dance demimonde in the 1960s and early ’70s—so much so that in 1974 Annette Michelson referred to the area south of Houston as an autonomous zone, its insularity directly conducive to a self-critical sensibility: “Existing and developing within their habitat as if on a reservation,” Michelson (no relation) wrote, the neighborhood’s “consumingly autoanalytical” dancers were “condemned to a strict reflexiveness.” And the confined but relatively concentrated dwellings of 2003 are a longer way still from the more thoroughly dispersed, Brooklyn-centric New York dance world of 2014.

Sarah Michelson, Shadowmann: Part II, 2003. (Excerpt from performance at P.S. 122, New York, April 2003.)

Michelson does not make dance for just anywhere, for anyone. “These dancers, this music, here, now,” Balanchine used to say, though popular and patronal taste forced occasional displacements into the more pragmatic register of there and then. But these are words Michelson, who hasn’t often had to address the demands of a massive, possibly alienated, public, continues to live by. “The shows themselves aren’t just about dance steps,” she tells Gia Kourlas in 2003. “They’re about the people who are doing them and where. If it works, it’ll be a little bit magical. I don’t know how much longer I can keep it up, but I really like surprises, and I think that undoing the expectations of your own theatrical community is important.”

She is the Queen of New York, you hear dancer-choreographer Trajal Harrell say. “You have to go see the Queen,” he says. “Don’t depend on the Queen to come see you.”

NOT JUST ANYWHERE, not for anyone. Devotion, which premieres at the Kitchen in January 2011, is Michelson’s first dance since the death of Merce Cunningham in 2009, and in many respects it is an homage to him, or to his legacy; to her time as one of his students in the early 1990s; and, perhaps, to the model of dance making and dance preservation that he both epitomized and modified. It is a dance that conjures and twits creation myths.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company—still resonant despite having closed two years after the death of its founder—may be not only the paradigmatic but also the last example of a living, thriving modern dance company. The company-and-repertory model of transmission no longer seems intelligible to many dance-makers. The development of the kind of idiosyncratic technique that forms the spine of many singular repertories—a living system of habits, stretches, repetitions that work the body into a particular kind of attention—seems an anachronism. A general shortage of permanent rehearsal space in New York and other dance capitals, along with a creative economy that privileges detached and mobile artist-dancer-choreographers, encourages this view. But there’s something more to it, too: an interest, perhaps, in different kinds of legacies, different modes of courting the present. So: How do you put something into repertory when repertories, at least in the modern, Graham-Cunningham-Balanchine sense, are becoming obsolete? What to do with a dance when a dance is done?

For a while, Michelson has conceived of “modular” dances—whole works that can be cut and pasted into other dances. This is not dissimilar from the logic of Cunningham’s Events, singular occasions that were organized with material spliced from repertory; and certainly dance history is littered with the magpie operations of choreographers lifting movements and phrases from themselves and others.¹ But Michelson’s tactic might be unique in that she occasionally imports, wholesale, evening-length works of her own into another dance, creating a full-fledged hybrid that is more than the sum of its parts, as at the Kitchen in 2003, where Grivdon was intertwined with new choreography, the whole constituting Shadowmann: Part I. Significantly, the dancers themselves are rarely imported with the dances. Grivdon at the Grivdon Concrete was performed by the five young girls in Shadowmann: Part I but was originally danced by Michelson and her peers in the Kitchen in 2002. Another work, Daylight (for Minneapolis), from 2005, is a composite of two other dances created earlier that same year: Love Is Everything, which was originally made on members of the Lyon Opera Ballet, and Daylight, which played at P.S.122 in 2005. In Daylight (for Minneapolis)—which inaugurated Herzog & de Meuron’s McGuire Theater at the Walker Art Center—the Lyon dance was performed by fifty young women around and beyond the quartet that forms the core of both Daylight and Daylight (for Minneapolis).

For Daylight, Michelson had special risers built that squished the already small theater space at P.S.122, exaggerating the intimacy of the dance—performed by Michelson and her gang of stars Iveson, Lutz, and Zuccolo. When the dance was remade “for Minneapolis,” Michelson brought the handmade risers with her and stuck them on the McGuire’s main stage, where they were engulfed by the raked, stadium-style seating. “The idea,” she said, “was that my ‘downtown,’ cheap, P.S.122 version, built according to our interpretation of details from Herzog & de Meuron’s PowerPoint presentation of their building, would go and sit inside this grand space.”

Except from Sarah Michelson’s Daylight (for Minneapolis) (2005) performed September 15, 2005, at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Michelson’s peregrine downtown: There are traces of myth here, too. But it is in Devotion that Michelson’s mythmaking is at its most expansive, at once biblical and artistic. For Devotion, Michelson again flipped the Kitchen’s stage, this time clockwise, so that the audience faced west instead of the usual south. The twist evokes Shadowmann, but here we look not at the entrance but at a black wall. We look afresh. The first twenty-some minutes feature Rebecca Warner, as the Narrator, dancing as Michelson reads a long prose poem—a reworking of Genesis and the birth of Christ adulterated with personal reflections—written for the occasion by the playwright Richard Maxwell. “The sun and the earth are still strangers getting acquainted and learning fresh and new ideas together. Nothing has been defined. Where will you go? What will you do? All is open. All is available. You only need to decide.”

Warner walks, holds a pose, her arms out in an embrace, then stretched wide, her feet torqued. Stops. Holds a different pose. The positions are strange, staccato yet fluid; they latch and unlatch, forming unfamiliar insignias. They are not “Cunningham,” but they feel of him, bear marks of his elegant, stiff liquidity. Other critics have noted that some of the phrasework in Devotion resembles that of specific Cunningham dances (Interscape, 2000) or even particulars of his technique class. But the quotation, if it can be called such, is not strong; it doesn’t announce itself so much as it haunts, shapes, filters. Not Cunningham but Cunninghamesque, the legible trace of something we might call technique, or style.

Michelson continues to read. Twenty-five minutes on, a bright light shines from the north wall, and out of it emerges a gangly, captivating fourteen-year-old in a white tracksuit: Non Griffiths, aka Mary. Soon Philip Glass’s 1986 “Dance IX” will strike up, and Griffiths will be joined (immaculate conception) by the gaunt James Tyson as Jesus. The eight-minute-long “Dance IX”—a direct invocation of Twyla Tharp’s brilliant 1986 “crossover” ballet In the Upper Room, for which it was written—will play three times in almost continuous succession. Warner reappears with another dancer, Nicole Mannarino, and you might recognize that their new costumes borrow from Norma Kamali’s signature black, white, and red designs for In the Upper Room. And at moments, the duet performed by the next two dancers, Jim Fletcher (Adam) and Eleanor Hullihan (Eve), recalls Tharp’s choreography, though “Dance IX” has by now given way to a driven instrumental score by the composer Pete Drungle. The Adam-Eve duet is one of the most powerful and memorable dances in my memory: a twenty-five-minute-long, athletic pas de deux of sprints, jetés, stunts, entrances, exits. Eve spends much of the time running to and from Adam across the stage, occasionally allowing him to hold, catch, or assist her. In the end, the euphonious music gone, the pair simply look at each other and—détente—together walk out the door.

There is a unique timbre to this reflexivity, to the intimations (not imitations) of Tharp. Michelson takes the costumes, the music, but hardly the phrasework—the “dance”—itself. Devotion’s peculiar mode of citation can’t be reduced to quotation, to pastiche. For whom, one wonders, is this signification, this taking? Tharp is explicitly considered, though intriguingly, she is mentioned nowhere in the program notes; Cunningham is felt more primally, evoked in the subterranean habits of the lived, “technical” body, and in the open, exquisite solitude of Warner’s solos that begin, and also end, Devotion. Unlike Shadowmann or Daylight (for Minneapolis), which cannibalize Michelson’s earlier work, Devotion mainlines other choreographers, other dances, other techniques. The references are all palpable, but held in suspension in Michelson’s colloidal dance.

If Shadowmann was in some sense pointing reflexively toward the Kitchen and P.S.122, gesturing to the kinds of audiences these spaces engender and toward other Michelson dances, the psychic address of Devotion is more catholic and the history is deeper—the mythopoeic history of dance itself. The costumes and music from Tharp’s In the Upper Room function in part as a theatrical Polari that speaks to devotees of dance, an argot understood not just at the Kitchen and similar nodes in the downtown or European festival network but at proscenium venues that specialize in repertory, in the dance world at large. To name names in the program notes would be to betray the trajectory of the message, to give it to everyone. The devoted audience meets the devoted dancer, and at this intersection they find common ground. At the core of this shared history is the quasireligious piety insisted on by the daily practice of a technique or rehearsal. “‘You must love the daily work,’ he would say,” Yvonne Rainer wrote in 1973, reflecting on her early experience with Cunningham. “She [Rainer] loved him for saying that, for that was one prospect that thrilled her about dancing—the daily involvement that filled up the body and mind with an exhaustion and completion that left little room for anything else.”

The daily work. The catechism Rainer espouses—Cunningham’s catechism—echoes in Devotion. Echoes but doesn’t prescribe. It says: We do our daily work our own way.

IT’S MARCH 2012, and the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York is covered with a white Masonite surface on which has been traced a version of Marcel Breuer’s floor plan for the 1966 building. Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer is new territory for Michelson. This is not her first dance in a museum. But it is the first to be sited in a museum gallery, to be not just proximate to the corridors of visual art but of them. Architecturally speaking, a museum gallery is perhaps not so different from a black-box space like the Kitchen, at least when compared with a proscenium, though this rectangular Whitney box is so white and bright it seems the anti-Kitchen.

Michelson has the advantage: She knows how to make a box sing. The Whitney space is configured in a way that recalls the setups for both Daylight (P.S.122) and Devotion (at the Kitchen), with the audience seated on risers set against the longest wall, and the dancing area wider than it is deep, creating a shallow depth of field that stretches on and on to the left and right. The term study, cheekily subsequent to what the dance is a study “for,” presumably Devotion at the Kitchen, is both a joke on the idea of dance in the museum (how could dance in the museum, particularly in the Whitney Biennial, be anything but a “study” of a dance, i.e., not the thing itself?) and a proposal: It might mean, “See? This is what devotion looks like.”²

Michelson stopped dancing in her own pieces after Dogs premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater in New York in 2006. Both a riposte and surrender to the tenets of proscenium dance, that work’s peculiar, eulogistic pitch is made explicit in one indelible scene, after intermission, when the audience returns to watch two women twirl in and out of a dense cloud of fog. They look like Michelson and Jennifer Howard, both of whom dance in Dogs’s first half, but these fog-women flit like sprites, and as the mist recedes you realize they’re teenage girls—Alice Downing and Laura Weston—styled as Michelson/Howard doppelgangers. No body’s spared biology’s dogged caprice. Since then, the dancing itself has grown more elaborate, demanding, and severe. In Dover Beach, 2009, and Devotion, there is quite simply more choreography, and more unique choreography, than in any of her works prior. There are also more physical tests, as when Warner in Dover Beach balances in a sort of attitude devant for what seems an impossibly long time, or when Hullihan and Fletcher sprint, near the end of Devotion, laboring until endurance forfeits to a kind of grace.

This “testing” is most pronounced in Devotion Study #1. It comprises a single phrase—really a continuous, legato traveling step, a variation on the backward triplet—with arms extended to the sides, the dancers’ path so tightly set it is impossible to know where and how they are finding their marks, how they stay together. The triplet has its source in a phrase—much the same, but with sped-up footwork—that Tyson and Mary Griffiths do together forty-five minutes into Devotion. In some way it bears the imprint of Michelson’s earlier modular operation of recuperating work. But instead of replaying a dance in full, Michelson is bracketing off a few seconds, homing in, refining the steps as if they’re rocks in a tumbler, like a master urging her pupils forward with correctives: Again. Again.

Again, the dance begins with the reading of a text written for Michelson by Maxwell, this time a purported dialogue between the two, with Michelson reading her own part and Jay Sanders, a curator of the 2012 Biennial and commissioner of the piece, reading Maxwell’s part.

“Does your public affect you?” Sanders reads. “I’m waiting to see what you say, before I answer. Do you feel like you need to give them a way in?”

“I don’t,” says Michelson. “I mean, it has meaning for me.”

Is it finally all about her? What does one make of Michelson herself—that is, of Michelson’s image, which is figured so persistently throughout the dances she creates? The first such representations occur in Daylight and Daylight (for Minneapolis), portraits by Claude Wampler of Michelson, her fellow dancers, and institutional staff. At the Whitney, Michelson’s face and hair (the design is Charlotte Cullinan’s) are outlined in neon on a wall; this logo-like portrait is familiar from Dogs and Dover Beach and will recur elsewhere. A critic writing about Devotion Study #1 for the New York Times offers this startling interpretation: “The choreographer whose image looks down upon the dancers and who keeps interfering and who demands acts of devotion is a cruel and anxious god.”

The religious imagery accrues. Devotion Study #1 has an enigmatic epigraph, a 1937 quote from Balanchine, also used in Jennifer Homans’s controversial history of ballet, Apollo’s Angels (2010), to introduce a chapter on the “American Century”:

Superficial Europeans are accustomed to say that American artists have no “soul.” This is wrong. America has its own spirit—cold, crystalline, luminous, hard as light. . . . Good American dancers can express clean emotion in a manner that might almost be termed angelic. By angelic I mean the quality supposedly enjoyed by the angels, who, when they relate a tragic situation, do not themselves suffer.

Does Michelson buy this? It seems hard to believe, just as it’s hard to take the Times critic’s characterization seriously. Yet suggestively, the neon portrait is itself, in a way, cold, crystalline, luminous, hard as light. Who can doubt that Balanchine’s Apollonian angels are in some way avatars of American industry, of capitalism moderne, sleek and beautiful and rational? Maybe Michelson’s serial self-effigies are indicative of a dancer for a new century—not an American century, but a century that belongs less to any state than to an economic order. This dancer lives, with a special intensity and literalism, the internal split that arguably haunts every member of the precariat, every freelancer, every artist—the split between self and image, body and brand. Repetition, seriality: the lot of those individuals who market themselves, who “become brands,” who are expected to give the people what they want, over and over again. Michelson’s modularity flirts with this expectation and flouts it. Less songs of herself, maybe, than paeans to contemporary anxieties, the portraits may actually be—at least to those members of the audience who get the joke, and who get Michelson—funny, and are perhaps never funnier than when read against Balanchine’s prose poetry. But while there may be humor here, and a distance to how the words are framed, there’s no evidence that she is engaging in deconstruction or critique. Nothing about Devotion Study #1 or the earlier Devotion evinces irony, pastiche, or irreverence. Their greatness in part is a function of the way they give dignity to the small, inexplicable texts and gestures they set in motion.

Five intrepid dancers perform the backward triplets: Maggie Cloud, Moriah Evans, Hullihan, Mannarino, and Tyson. Mannarino is the first to enter and the last to leave, and by the end she has performed these triplets, in relevé, for ninety minutes. Her blue pantsuit is soaked in sweat, yet her face remains the very picture of angelic sangfroid. It is as though the sweat isn’t coming from her but from us: like her clothes are wicking water from the air.

At the end there’s another reading by Michelson, a fable about a second child of God, a girl named Marjorie. And: “Make it very beautiful,” she says.

IT’S THE FIRST WEEKEND of November 2012, and a crowd gathers in the atrium at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. We’ve come for the final weekend of “Some sweet day,” a germinal series of dances curated by Ralph Lemon and Jenny Schlenzka. Only a few days ago, Hurricane Sandy put the whole city on pause, and it’s hard to believe that anything is happening here at all.

Michelson wears a white blouse and skirt, and she beams as she walks across the broad slate expanse toward a laptop stationed at the west wall, installed between the two entrances to the second-floor contemporary-art galleries. She takes her place in the crowd, which hugs the sides of the space, leaving a vast, unpopulated square in the middle. A tinny version of Double Exposure’s buoyant, aspirational song “Everyman” (1976) starts up on the loudspeakers, filling the vaulted vacuum of MoMA’s hull. And then, up the stairs from the lobby, chaperoned by two MoMA security guards, bounces Mannarino, all verve and bright brio, wearing navy hot pants, white sneakers, and a blue cap-sleeved shirt. Her hair is in pom-pom pigtails. She is everything, a gorgeous, tiny hoyden, like a vintage carhop shot through the Paradise Garage on her way to MoMA. She spends much of the dance with either hands clasped behind her or arms akimbo, her attention on her feet, which kick, twist, shuffle sideways like a straitjacketed Lindy Hop—never on the music, but clearly in dialogue with it, tracing a path along the floor. It is awkward, this dance, full of a kind of concentrated kinetic pleasure that is never entirely expelled. Michelson selects the tunes, all galvanic, contagious soul. It’s the middle of the day, and the crowds swirl around the museum, sticking to the dance like filings to a magnet, sometimes moving on after a few minutes as some other museum magnet pulls them elsewhere. But more often than not, those who come stay.

This work, Devotion Study #3, appears to be one of the few solos in Michelson’s oeuvre. (Of a potential Study #2, Michelson is mysteriously mum, but the next installation in the series, co-commissioned by the Walker and Whitney and titled simply 4, premieres at the Whitney this month.) Much of its drama revolves around the question of whether Mannarino can hold the attention of the crowd in this unforgiving space. (She does, handily.) But it’s not so cleanly a solo. Mannarino is actually paired with Michelson, for whom she appears to dance—like a game Albrecht for the Wilis. Michelson leans over her laptop, DJing and whooping in concert when Mannarino lets out the occasional “Aaaaaaah!”—a spontaneous, joyful scream. And there is another, perhaps unseen, dancer, James Tyson, who spends much of the thirty-minute performance running through the museum—shirtless, sinewy—performing the same (or similar) offbeat, sideways-swivel-kick footwork in the galleries.

Has the atrium ever felt so alive? The dance pulls in a crowd, but it also reorganizes the flow of museum traffic, as a group of MoMA security guards hold position on the atrium’s east side, directing visitors and splitting the main stairwell in two, holding open at all times a clear, VIP path for Mannarino. We’re in the middle of “Janice (Don’t Be So Blind to Love)” (1979) by Skip Mahoney and the Casuals when Mannarino leaps back from the atrium stage and walks toward the stairs to the lobby, escorted by the guards, and the music continues to play as this traffic-flow infrastructure folds in behind her.

Michelson’s works are alloyed with institutional agents and supports: Years after he plays King Lear to the cast of Shadowmann, Baumgartner pours wine for Michelson and Lutz onstage in Dogs; at the Walker, Wampler’s portraits of Philip Bither (performance curator) and of Kathy Halbreich and Richard Flood (director and deputy director, respectively, of the museum at the time) are hung throughout the venue; Sanders reads Maxwell’s text at the Whitney; MoMA’s security guards become glamorous escorts for Mannarino. And there are more examples: Tyson, who performs in Devotion (as Jesus) and in Devotion Study #1 and #3, is a performance programmer and commissioned Dover Beach for Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, Wales; Mikhail Baryshnikov, who commissioned a Michelson work called The Experts, 2002, is also that dance’s celebrity guest star. Everything and everyone is game for aestheticization. Every space—the lobby, the street, adjacent galleries—is taken. Choreography absorbs—takes on, takes in—the institution’s administrative talismans. Michelson’s choreographic magic is that this integration comes off as organic and inexorable; it’s of a piece with the piece. And with the place—the site, the network, the milieu.

We begin with habitation, a neighborhood, perhaps a place with which we connect—the Kitchen, P.S.122. And from this might emerge a habitus, unique sensibilities, attitudes, ways of moving through something we might call technique or simply the daily work, which might live for a little while in something brief called a dance. It comes out of and becomes a way of life, reinscribing a social world, or a psychic community of historical addressees. Habitare, “to live.” Not just anywhere, not just for anyone. But for you and me, the devoted.

IN 2005 a friend took me to P.S.122 to see a dance by Sarah Michelson. I sat, absorbed by the four dancers pouring across the stage and the world that opened up in front of me. The performance began with a blare of saxophones and ended like nothing I’d ever seen, with a shadow dance that disembarked from the first dance, with no ritualistic closure of a bow. Afterward, I remember walking to the box office to buy two tickets so I could bring a friend to see it with me the next night. And since then not a single day has passed that I have not thought about her and her dancing. About that dance that got stuck in my head.

In the wild, singular, stylish, alloyed land of Sarah Michelson, you don’t surrender to the genuflection of the bow. Do you think things are over just because all those people are clapping?

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

Sarah Michelson’s 4 will be presented from Jan. 24 to Feb. 2, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.


1. Alastair Macaulay’s excellent précis on the topic, “In Dance, Borrowing Is a Tradition” (New York Times, November 21, 2011), offers a useful starting point for a consideration of the way in which “appropriation” is constitutive to the art of choreography.

2. In a recent article, André Lepecki eloquently articulates this “devotion” in Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer in terms of “political affirmation,” as a signpost of the dancer’s embodied agency within a larger choreographic composition: “This is how one learns how to move the political thing.” “Choreopolice and Choreopolitics,” TDR: The Drama Review 57, no. 4 (Winter 2013), 13–27.