Despondent Diva

Choreographer Sarah Michelson's in the dark before Daylight

Sarah Michelson is a dance world star. But she's tired of being broke. She's tired of not having enough money to take care of her body. And she's tired of living in what amounts to a cell.

Michelson's won Bessies for choreography two years running. Her three-week winter season at P.S.122, scheduled to open this Thursday, has been postponed for two weeks due to a new injury to her foot. She holds prestigious commissions from the Walker Art Center and the Lyon Opera Ballet, and will debut an ambitious new work at BAM's Next Wave Festival in the fall of 2006. You'd think she'd be less distraught.

Michelson, who turned 40 in September, pays $1,100 a month for a tiny studio in a tenement on East 7th Street. In 2004 she earned $22,000 for choreographing and performing, and a little more for curating. "I've lived in that apartment for 11 years. I'm four months behind in the rent. My landlord is a nice guy; I'm one of the lucky people. He knows I'm an artist and its hard for me . . . but it's way too small. I do everything from home. If a lover stays over, there's nowhere for him to go. It's time for me to have a second room."

Glum goddess: Michelson (foreground) rehearsing with Greg Zuccolo and Parker Lutz
photo: Richard Termine
Glum goddess: Michelson (foreground) rehearsing with Greg Zuccolo and Parker Lutz

A striking woman with a lot of style, Michelson shops for bargains at Filene's Basement. Traveling to England to care for her aging grandmother, plus the cost of phones, food, laundry, and getting around town, have left her nearly destitute. She has no health insurance, she says, and can't afford to go to the dentist. "I have a tooth that's been broken for almost two years, and an injured leg."

She's actually had success in the funding universe, with support for current projects coming from the Jerome Foundation, the Rockefeller MAP Fund, Altria, and the BUILD program at the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her company garnered $188,171 in 2004, more than half of it fees for performing. The tour of last year's Shadowmann was contracted in euros, whose recent escalation against the dollar has helped to meet expenses. But the life of a touring choreographer has unforeseen hazards, including the interruption of her day job back home.

"I teach yoga, mostly privately, and sub at Shala on 12th and Broadway," she says. Because the site-specific Shadowmann incorporated a group of nontraditional performers, she had to visit every venue twice to audition and teach the dance critic and the teenage girls recruited for the piece. "There was no funding for that. I've fallen into debt. I have loyal yoga clients, but I've had to give up my regular teaching. As I became more successful, my personal life fell apart."

Barbara Bryan, who manages Michelson as well as gifted choreographers like John Jasperse and Wally Cardona, points out that Michelson is not alone. "They've all gotten funding as emerging artists, about $30,000 a year. Now that they're more established, they're no longer eligible for this money, yet there's no other funding at that level available for companies of their size." Jasperse, whose troupe played the Next Wave last month, earned $26,000 (on total company revenue of $303,000)—and he lost the Bushwick loft space in which he's worked for 15 years.

Impresario Mark Russell, the former artistic director of P.S.122 who co-commissioned Michelson's new work, finds her one of the most interesting choreographers working today.

"She brings pop, fashion, and visual art sensibilities to her pieces that are unique and striking. Her generation is the sampling generation, and she makes that work in dance, taking techniques from Limón, ballet, yoga, and the postmoderns, creating her own movement vocabulary. It's very extreme, pushing the limits of her dancers, her nontraditional performers, and the audience. She's one of the few choreographers who can still surprise me."

But Russell is no longer at P.S.122's helm, and Michelson's struggling to adapt her methods to the space's new regime. Daylight is a quartet, though nine other names are listed on the program. "My regular group—Mike Iveson, Parker Lutz, Greg Zuccolo, and I—was hired by Mark Russell. Frank DenDanto, the P.S. technical director, was my lighting designer.

"Then Russell and DenDanto were downsized. The place was left with a different structure. It feels completely different . . . lacks a center. Hopefully a new center will emerge. My work may be a little too demanding for the space as it's currently set up. That causes strain on both sides." Having lost DenDanto, Michelson had to hire a stage manager, a production manager and lighting designer, and additional crew, adding $7,500 to the cost of mounting the project.

Russell programmed this season, but is not there to implement it. "It's put in high relief what I used to do," he says. "A lot of it is very intangible—being there to reinforce the artist's argument is an important part of the process. It's not just 'Book 'em!' They're trying to fulfill my vision, but I'm not there to help them."

"We didn't have enough time," says Michelson about Daylight. "It's a disaster right now. I'm making a full-length work in 10 weeks; I usually take a year, with the space as a primary starting point. I figure out how I'm going to organize it; Parker and I work on that together. From that visual organization, the idea of the dance emerges. Most of the movement comes from my body. We execute it over and over until we learn what it means to do it on the stage, and whether it works in terms of the concept we've created.

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