Despondent Diva

Choreographer Sarah Michelson's in the dark before Daylight

"I don't want a feel-good situation. I want to be in a critical dialogue with my peers. I don't want my work to be limited by the way dance has been wedded to the formulaic operation of presenting houses—an agreement to not disturb the technicians' habits and methods, even politely. To make something exciting with too little time in the actual space, to suddenly charge a lot of money when you've been acclaimed, instead of keeping the ticket prices the same—all these things inhibit art-making freedom.

"I want to make dances in a world I want to live in. I don't want to feel deprived of glamour. My dances appear to be personality-based; everybody is so cute, incredible on the stage. If I could have anyone in the world I'd still choose the people I'm working with; they're so fantastic, and they have very strong personalities, but everything that happens is structured in a formal way. People who read it on the level of personality might feel that it's superficial; I want those people to know that I know what I'm doing."

Michelson earns extra money now as an adjunct curator (along with Dean Moss) at the Kitchen, advising on the dance offerings at a space which, like P.S.122, has a new director and chief curator, Deb Singer, this season.

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

"Dean and I talk a lot. I'm excited about Deb Singer; she's extremely confident, has a great deal of knowledge, very high expectations. Since she's come aboard I've been treated with a great deal of respect and maturity. She pays us for our ideas. She's a strong, clear, diplomatic, bold leader." The Kitchen has provided Michelson with free rehearsal space, as has the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Michelson grew up poor in Manchester, England. "I was a punk, a rough girl, stole cars, was in trouble in school—a latchkey kid with a difficult home life. My mother is a brilliant woman with not a single maternal bone in her body; we coexisted throughout my young life. I figured out early that she had no interest in me whatsoever. I moved in with friends; there were two different families I lived with as a child. Eventually the parents would get sick of me so I'd go home for a minute.

"I studied literature, had incredible teachers—even though I was rough they took a shine to me, treated me like my mind was really important. My English teacher called London University, made them let me in, gave me 100 pounds, and drove me there. While I was taking my A levels my mother was organizing her second marriage. I failed my English A levels! But my teacher believed I was brilliant and sent them my writings; she was like, 'Get her to university.'

"At 11 I saw Fame on the TV and said, 'I'm supposed to do that.' I was in Oliver, Cabaret, played Eliza in My Fair Lady—played a lot of men. I went to a girl's school—a Victorian Church of England school. I was going to be a barrister, the person who argues for the lawyer in court, because it appeared that I had a certain eloquence and combative nature that would work in that scenario . . . or, I was going to be a dancer."

At Goldsmiths College, she was put into a residence "where all my friends were dancers; one became a Teletubby. We ran a cabaret club together in London. Then I went to drama school, worked crazy jobs, got involved with a performance group called Semiambulant. In 1987 I got set on fire in a bad accident in Amsterdam, jumped into a canal, was hospitalized for almost a year, and had skin grafts at a burn unit built for the Falklands War and for IRA bomb victims. I was in a wheelchair, listening to them scream. I decided, 'I'm getting better, I'm not having this'. . . . I knew I was going to be fine . . . and then I was."

Her parents have never seen her dance.

She moved to Los Angeles, then to San Francisco, "offending people left, right, and center." San Francisco, she says, "taught me what was positive about the American way: to be a lot less judgmental, more open. The beauty of being naive and willing to take a risk, not being so afraid all the time." She met choreographers Joe Goode and Margie Jenkins, did a lot of performing (including flamenco), and made her first dance.

"It was very successful, and that made me want to leave, so I went to England, then back to San Francisco." She did an M.A. in fiction writing at Mills College to preserve her student status, moved to New York in 1991, and studied at the Merce Cunningham Studio for three years. More travel ensued, to Spain and to London, where she worked as a waitress at the River Café. She returned to New York in 1995.

"I was headhunted by Balthazar, but I couldn't work in any more restaurants. Julie Atlas Muz made me an intern at Movement Research in exchange for free classes." She applied for a green card as an artist of extraordinary ability, was a curator at Dixon Place with Yoshiko Chuma, and edited the dance world's excellent free newspaper Movement Research Journal.

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