Gimme Shelter: Performance Now

Gimme Shelter | Talking with Sarah Michelson about “Devotion Study #1” at the Whitney Biennial

For this month’s column, I interviewed choreographer Sarah Michelson about Devotion Study #1, a performance that took place as part of her residency at the 2012 Whitney Biennial, March 1–11. Interview Date: March 30, 2012.

Marissa Perel: So, you’re just coming off the Whitney Biennial and you’re preparing for MoMA.

Sarah Michelson: Yes, it’s for this program, Some sweet day, curated by Ralph Lemon October 15-November 4. There will be three weeks of dance in the museum with Steve Paxton, Jérôme Bel, Faustin Linyekula, Dean Moss, Deborah Hay and me. Deborah and I share the last week of the program.

MP: Do you feel that you’re able to deal with the museum [setting] in a different way now because you worked at the Whitney?

SM: The Whitney was a very singular experience. I did work at the Walker Arts Center in the museum part of it as well as the theater, but being in the Whitney was my first true experience of placing dance into a museum. I can’t imagine that it means I’m equipped to deal with a museum. I think it was a very singular experience because it was for the Biennial and it was the dream of the curators [Elizabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders] to make this thing happen. Nobody was prepared for it. I wasn’t prepared for the machine of the museum and what they didn’t have. They certainly weren’t prepared for a performance. Of course, I was first so it was a lot of discovery, and arriving at  an understanding of it by the final performance. I don’t think it’s made me equipped for anything except to go first [laughs].

Nicole Mannarino in "Devotion, Study #1." Photo credit: Paula Court.

MP: Did you originally intend to bring something from [your previous work] Devotion [that took place at the Kitchen, Janurary 2011] into the museum? Where did your idea for the performance begin?

SM: At first, I had a lot of different ideas for what I wanted to do after Devotion. After my initial meeting with the curators, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to create something completely new in 6 months.  I’ve become kind of a slow craftsperson, and I knew I had to stay where I was. So, working from that place became quite quickly intentional.

MP:  In talking about your work at the Walker [Arts Center] and the Whitney [Museum], I’m fascinated with the way institutional critique works its way into what you do. It becomes part of your vision, and at the same time makes it a challenge to execute. It informs the dance audience about how the dance is being made. In this case, it informs a visual art audience about how live performance is being made. I wanted to know more about your choices in deciding to have Jay Sanders perform with you, and use the blueprint of the Whitney as the dance floor.

SM:  It seemed unavoidable. I think the blueprint of the Whitney, for this dance, was the starting point in the room. I wanted the fourth floor  and I knew I had to make a floor because what we were doing was going to be rigorous. When I had my first meeting with the curators, Jay was clearly interested in my relationship to context. He gave me a lot of information, sent me a lot of books. He gave me a photocopied handout of [architect] Marcel Breuer’s treatment for the Whitney within which were some copies of the architectural blueprints. That was very formative. It somehow started these thoughts or feelings about faith. My connection to the Whitney began there.

The writing was so smart and sweet, and it had such integrity! I was very concerned with this idea that I’d been invited to take on, which is the idea of making contemporary the legacy of performance in the Whitney. That was never stated directly, but I felt that the curators had this idea. They had seen Devotion so they had seen me deal with these dance histories, I guess. And, I was like, “I am not touching that. I cannot, there’s no way.” But the Marcel Breuer text connected me directly to the museum, not through dance, but through the hope for the institution itself. I felt more freedom to contextualize the performance in relationship to that.

Nicole Mannarino poised in her sweat-soaked costume with neon portrait of Michelson reflected in the window. Photo credit: Paula Court.

MP: I loved watching the dance through the reflection in the window. Seeing the entirety of the neon portrait and the circling dance reflected on the floor was mind-blowing.

SM: Yeah, the windows are pretty amazing.

MP: I felt like, “I am never going to have an experience at the Whitney like this, again.”  It was one of the most extreme endurance dances I’ve seen you make. It’s hard to approach talking to you about it because it was so brutal. It was something to sit through…

SM: I know, it was hard. We rehearsed a lot and it was definitely a labor of love. The rehearsal process was definitely a labor of love. Especially between me and [dancer] Eleanor [Hullihan] and [dancer] Nicole Mannarino.

MP: How long had you been working with the metronome?

SM: We started out without it for a couple weeks. We probably rehearsed with it for 6 months. We started out at 140 [beats per minute] and then it became 150 [bpm], and in the end, it was 152 [bpm].

MP: So, the timing of the metronome was inside of the dancers by the time of the show.

SM:  We were in this constant state of working with it. We had a whole language for it that we developed for the dance. It was very intricate. It’s amazing what can happen in a millisecond of a second! You can land on the metronome and the work becomes heavy or you can fly off the metronome.

MP: Each of the dancers had a different relationship to the metronome, and it seemed that each one played off of it differently.

SM: I wouldn’t say that anyone was playing! I would say everyone was surviving. The task for everybody was the same and people handled the task differently I think.

MP: So the audience was watching how the dancers were adapting in real time?

SM: Yes, it was about the task, and how the dancers kept trying to apply themselves to the task.

Eleanor Hullihan and Nicole Mannarino in "Devotion Study #1," Photo credit: Paula Court.

MP: How is this rigorous, task-based choreography a “study” of the American dancer, as it relates to the Balanchine quotation that is on the playbill, “America has its own spirit — cold, crystalline, luminous, hard as light…”?

SM: The Balanchine text has been on my mind for a long time. I started thinking about the American dancer in Devotion. I started understanding it as a kind of clarity, like Modernism with a capital M. Previous to Devotion, when I had made Dover Beach, I was working with a distinctly British aesthetic, like Lilliputian quilting. It’s something like a comparison of Keats vs. Whitman [laughs]. When I was invited into the Whitney, I was like, “Oh! This is America.” I just felt like it’s America, the Whitney is America. America’s dreams about art, this is America. That’s how the title happened. I was also aware of Michael Clark being curated into the same situation as a British choreographer, which I also am.

MP: But you’re supposed to represent a legacy of American choreography?

SM: Well, that’s the interesting thing about Balanchine not being American. There’s something so beautiful about talking about America as a non-American, and reviewing your values and opinions as a European.

MP: You were thinking about your context.

SM: I was thinking about my responsibility to the Whitney Museum as a choreographer; what is it they were inviting in? Who am I to them and therefore to myself?

MP: These questions are important in terms of being in the audience. I realized even with a stage, seating and a door that is kept closed, there were viewers who didn’t know that they needed to sit and watch, that it was about the experience and that was what they were there for.

SM: Yes, there’s time involved!

MP: Were you aware of that when you were watching the performance and did that affect you in any way?

SM: I thought that there was a beautiful tension there. I saw it in “my” audience, the audience that comes to see my shows, whom I know are going to stay, even if they can’t stand the show because they have an internal desire to know what the entire show is. They want to understand what’s been made. That’s versus the art-going audience who are very empowered, generally, to take or leave what’s around them. Loads and loads of people walked out, which I started to find quite energizing. I started to find that during the pause, everyone could handle it for eight minutes. Always at minute eight, two people would get up, and two more…

Nicole Mannarino taking the pause. Photo credit: Paula Court.

MP: Wow.

SM: So, I started to find that complexity energizing and started to feel how great that was. In a weird way, dance audiences are incredible and dance is really fucking hard to watch. We’re dedicated to this rigor of watching as well as making it new. It is an entire rigor that we have. Not that an art audience couldn’t have that, but we just have the practice of it. That felt rewarding and clarifying in a strange way.

MP: It was definitely punk, that pause.  Ten minutes! It was like, “fuck you, we just worked our asses off and now you’re going to watch us stand here,” and then the floor explodes with light from your sculpture. That type of attitude or atmosphere seems to always find its way into your performances, and is always different. Stillness or repetition messes with the audience’s expectations. To see the exhaustion of the dancers as they come down from working so hard! There was something about Devotion Study #1 itself that put that labor on the table. We [as an audience] watched them [the performers] work and now we’re working by waiting. Do we have the endurance to sit through that pause to really consider how much has happened? Even in describing it, there’s something emotional about it.

SM: Yeah, I felt like the pause was very excruciating. Every night, I was like, “ok here we go!” But, we had to do something; we had to stop. But I didn’t want them to leave the stage. The first time, the pause was five minutes. Alice [Downing] was in the room, and I asked, “Was that pause too long?” She said, “Yeah, a little bit.” [And I said,] “Ok, let’s try ten.” [laughs] It was like that right away. I felt like that’s what it had to be. It felt like a eulogy. The dance had become all kinds of things. It was a still life, a painting. A place to consider Merce Cunningham’s death, its silence. It became a million things that changed for me all the time, but it was extremely vital. That space and time became extremely vital and central to whatever it is I was after.

MP: So, you’re saying that pause was also a way to consider history.

SM: Yes, for me. I am not imposing that perspective on the viewer, but it was for me.

The second part of this interview will be posted in April on Critical Correspondence, the on-line dance and performance journal co-edited by Marissa Perel.