Dancing About Architecture


Sarah Michelson had turned the theater around, moving the audience onto what is usually the Kitchen’s stage. Before the doors opened, however, we knew only that we had to wait on the second floor—not standard operating procedure. Anticipation began; so, in a way, did the piece.

Michelson’s choreography always has this meta level. The dances aren’t just pleasurable to watch; they’re about waltzing the old dance-world conventions right down to seating arrangements—out into the startled light of consciousness. On some level, each dance is about the dance.

While spectators waited on the second floor to see Michelson’s Shadowmann, Part 1, they could also watch the earth move—that is, they could enter an installation called Mori. In this virtual earthwork, a spiral jetty made of black draping, real-time seismic data from California’s Hayward Fault pulsed across a computer screen in the floor. Most eerie was the soundscape amplified in accordance with the seismic activity 3,000 miles away. It rumbled like the distant bombing of Baghdad.

In that ambience of utter fragility, we learned that Michelson had torn a muscle during warm-up and would not be able to perform. We entered the reconfigured Kitchen, walking past five dancers, ages nine to 13, on our way to the chairs where Michelson already sat with her leg on an ice pack. She explained later that she had turned the Kitchen around because she felt limited by the usual seating plan. And because she thinks her audience is made up, for the most part, of people who’ve been to the Kitchen before. She would make it new for them.

Michelson tends to make site-specific work, an unusual choice in the dance world because such pieces are difficult if not impossible to tour. With Shadowmann, Part 1, she took it a step farther, noting that even her choreographic choices were based on the architecture of the Kitchen. She says the space reminds her of the facade of the Worker’s City in Metropolis, “the kind of grandeur that has to do with sets of linear arrangements.” The Metropolis workers move in very stylized ways—piston-like on the job or plodding towards home. “The movement and the architecture create one idea,” says Michelson. Cog in the machine? The press release cites Bauhaus architecture as her influence. Its precision? Matter-of-factness? Shadowmann had all that, and a certain right-angle geometry.

Spectators sat facing the door, the lighting booth, our expectations, and one last section of bleachers with stacked chairs. The little girls who’d been onstage moved to one side where they danced continuously, repetitively, in outfits emblazoned “D&G.” As the adult dancers entered, I noticed that they all seemed to have their areas, often on the margins of the space instead of center stage, except for Greg Zuccolo, who caromed about rather wildly, even zipping up to the lighting booth. At one point, everyone literally danced in the dark. But the biggest surprise came early on, when the door opened and we saw dancer Parker Lutz standing across the street on someone’s doorstep. Slowly, stopping for traffic, she crossed into the lobby and threw herself to the floor. At the end, the girls walked out the door and climbed into a white limousine—or should have. The night I attended, the limo got stuck in traffic.

This week, in a unique collaboration between venues, Shadowmann moves from the Kitchen to P.S.122, where Part 2 will run for three weeks in the downstairs theater, notorious for its bad sight lines. (Specifically, pillars.) It also seems much too cramped to work for a dance company, but Michelson calls it “a very exciting, weird little room.” She’s going to shift the seating a bit, expand upon some movement she’s isolated from Part 1, and beyond that offers only the intriguing comment that “there’s a lot of fireproofing issues right now. I’ve got some ideas but they might be foiled.”

Michelson staged her first full-length piece, Group Experience, in this same tiny space at P.S. late in 2001. She painted the walls white, covered the floor with white carpet, took out the chairs, and packed in nine performers. The signature moment came when they all stood on tiptoe for five minutes, ankles touching. Mikhail Baryshnikov was so taken with the piece he commissioned her to create a dance for White Oak. In The Experts, her first piece for a proscenium stage, Michelson put Baryshnikov in a long black skirt and Velcro handcuffs and covered the stage with bubble wrap.

Her dances always include elements of installation art and performance. Michelson is extremely choosy about the kind of space in which she will work, as if the dancing itself sprang right from the walls. She has shunned the bigger second floor at P.S.122, which most choreographers crave, but says she now has one idea for that space. She can’t imagine working at the new Dance Theater Workshop. “It’s a forced perspective in such a deep way. I’d have to go in there for months.” Lately, she says, she’s been thinking about “the way the setup of the theater creates work, the way the proscenium or the black-box theater set up in a theatrical way is really the elephant in the room.”

I have not described even the skeleton of Shadowmann, Part 1, just enough bones so I can speak of its soul—the consciousness Michelson brings to it about style and scale and self-presentation. Just as she works within a given environment, she is hyper-aware of the larger dance-world environment, with its unspoken rules. If the most obvious trespass is the kidwear screaming “Dolce & Gabbana,” her reasoning for that explains others: “I’m interested in doing things you’re not supposed to do.”

Michelson takes a conceptual approach to her work by questioning the basics, such as what makes a good beginning and what constitutes an end, why do performers bow, why do certain kinds of modern dancers wear black (or is it now industrial gray?), why is it all supposed to look effortless (“Fatigue is also a movement quality”), and how are dancers who work on the proscenium different from those who don’t.

For part of Shadowmann, Part 1, she says, “We were using the idea of grand opera, the European proscenium stage dances, the assumptions that those dances can make about lighting and persona and performance.” And what do you need to be a proscenium dancer? “A lot of specificity about who you think you are while you’re doing it.” (Like: I know you can see me, I’m untouchable, I’m very skilled.) But once she decided to use that persona, she did not want to mock it.

She asked Mike Iveson to make “music for believers, not cynics. Because everything has to be just what it is. I didn’t want anything to be ‘we’re showing you this but really it’s that.’ ”

She has a real outsider perspective on the world in which she’s now become successful, but she’s just bringing the facts to the surface. Talk about seismic activity.

Those who saw Part 1 have tickets for Part 2, but some seats are still available. Call 212-477-5288. Mori, by Ken Goldberg, Randall Packer, Gregory Kuhn, and Wojciech Matusik, remains at the Kitchen through April 12.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 8, 2003

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