DEVOTION STUDY #1: Sarah Michelson
March 10, 2012
For some, watching Sarah Michelson’s “Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer” at the Whitney served as an endurance test in audience attention; for others, repeat attendance was essential.
Currently robed in Whitney Biennial excitement, the long (5,000 square foot) space on the fourth floor functions as the performance area. A blueprint of the Whitney’s floor plan is imprinted in light gray on the floor, which is surrounded by white walls and punctuated by a bouquet of wide rimmed, circular scoop lights, plus a green neon outline of Ms. Michelson’s face.
Time is measured out by the sound of a metronome and insistently welling, cords of music by James Lo. A dancer emerges wearing a deep-blue culottes dress and angel-wing sleeves. She reaches back in strong strides, on the balls of her feet, creating a backward circle, arms out to the side.
In a herculean effort, Nicole Mannarino continues, almost nonstop, forging interconnecting circles for nearly 90 minutes. In the beginning, there’s a voice-over recording of Michelson chatting with postmodern playwright Richard Maxwell about audiences’ expectations, and the artist’s never-ending struggle to remain true-to-self—despite public or critical response.
When they stop, the audience is left with the tick, tick, tick of the metronome and constant ebb and flow of one dancer entering behind another. After about fifteen minutes, the striking Eleanor Hullihan in a white dress (costumes by Michelson and Zack Tinkelman) joins Ms. Mannarino. The strides switch in rhythm from imperceptibly dropped heels on count three, count four or two. One after another, three dancers filter in, assuming the same movement, but looking quite different due to the varying technical levels. The spatial designs and subtle rhythmic switches were reminiscent of the postmodern dancer Lucinda Childs’ early years.
Although all are drenched in sweat by the end, Mannarino is literally soaking wet. At one point, someone appears wearing a brown unitard and horse’s head. It adds another ingredient to the absurdity of the experience. Biennial curators Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders invited Ms. Michelson after seeing “Devotion”—a marvelous piece—at The Kitchen last year. She focused on one passage in the larger piece, magnifying it for the Whitney Biennial audience.
Michelson nails it in her thanks when she writes: “Thanks to Nicole, Eleanor, Maggie, James, and Moriah for your dedication to this absurd process---.” For the sake of their future careers, I can only hope a physical therapist attended to the dancers after each performance.
The next choreographer on the Whitney Biennial agenda is British “bad boy” choreographer, Michael Clark.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis