“What I really like about making a dance is doing something that seems doomed to fail—partly because dance often seems like something useless and you have to question yourself about why even do it. It sets up a challenge.” In a recent interview, choreographer Sarah Michelson confirmed her considerable reputation for making demanding work.
For her 2005 Walker commission Daylight (for Minneapolis), Michelson drew from numerous sources of inspiration and influence, including the multidisciplinary institution’s “more than a museum” mission as well as the forms and theories of Walker expansion architects Herzog & de Meuron. Her heady, complex spectacle, which incorporated more than 50 large-scale painted portraits, was designed to be only partially seen, depending on where audience members were situated. A host of local performers and dance students, including 50 girls ranging in age from 6 to 15, joined Michelson’s New York ensemble for the indoor/outdoor performance.
Devotion, Michelson’s new Walker-commissioned piece, is a provocative and visually striking dance that originated from a story by Richard Maxwell, a playwright noted for his deceptively deadpan style. Leaders in experimental dance and theater, Michelson and Maxwell (a veteran of the Walker’s Out There series in 2005 and 2000) are both renowned for strangely transfixing, fiercely uncompromising productions. The two artists have long admired each other’s work—Michelson praises Maxwell’s “purposeful stage aesthetic” and “the magic he creates in exploring tensions between people.” The choreographer also touched on intriguing ideas in discussing Devotion’s performers—two actors and four dancers who seem to embody a tension between innocence and experience, between charisma and the possibility of its “hothouse” cultivation. Actors Jim Fletcher (Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz) and James Tyson have performed in numerous Maxwell plays, while Eleanor Hullihan, Nicole Manorino, and Rebecca Warner have considerable experience in ballet, modern, and contemporary dance. The fourth dancer is 13-year old Non Griffiths, who was honored last fall with a Bessie Award for bringing “an innocent but romantically charged fervor to Michelson’s eccentrically elegant vision [Dover Beach].”
On a broader level, Michelson likens the process of making new work to creating her own universe. It’s a kind of “totalitarian experience” in that she takes charge of sets, costumes, and lighting to a degree most other choreographers do not. The results can be simultaneously befuddling and bewitching. Village Voice critic Deborah Jowitt wrote, “Sarah Michelson’s work makes people ask questions ranging from ‘How did she come up with an idea like that?’ to ‘What does she think she’s doing?’ No one, however, asks more questions than Michelson herself—in private and in print—about her choices and gut instincts.” As the choreographer puts it, “I’m trying to make dance that’s inaccessible, because the more you make it accessible the more it seems unnecessary.”