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.

"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.

"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.


Daylight's other commissioner is Philip Bither of Minneapolis's Walker Art Center, a strong supporter of Michelson's work who advocated with other funders to help secure money for the project.

"The Walker is building a 300-seat theater with the technical capacity of a 1,000-seat theater," Michelson says, "and we were invited to recontextualize the new building. Parker and I went to meet the architects: Herzog & de Meuron, based in Basil, Switzerland. I wanted to connect the two projects; Herzog & de Meuron had intricate concepts that can be revealed in an interesting way when applied to the significantly less glamorous theater at P.S.122.

"I have big ideas; I'm interested in something that's expensive. I'm actually thinking of quitting in order to change disciplines. Is there something else I could do where I'd be as engaged as I am in this form, but not so beaten down? After the Next Wave I think maybe I'm done. I have to figure out something else to do with my life; I don't know how long I can sustain this passion before the reason I started doing it dies with the struggle I face. I want to set aside time to experiment with film . . . with the same people. I'd be interested in the cinematography and the editing. I want to make a blockbuster.

"I turned 40; I thought something came if you worked really hard and got lucky. I'm so lucky, I'm so grateful, but I thought some other part of my life would get fixed, and it didn't. In fact, it's kind of worse. I'm so excited about the project, and my dancers and I love working together, but it's hard to imagine that we'll be able to sustain it."


Due to an inury to Michelson's foot, her PS122 season has been cancelled.

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