“Curioser and curioser,” Lewis Carroll’s Alice was wont to remark during the adventures following her tumble down a rabbit hole or passage through a looking glass. That’s how I’ve often felt watching Sarah Michelson’s work of the past few years. Her disturbing, witty dance-theater -architecture pieces disorient you from the get-go. For Group Experiences (2001) in P.S. 122’s small downstairs theater, the audience sat on platforms covered with white carpeting. The carpet re-appeared in the same black-box theater for the second part of her 2003 Shadowmann, where it anchored a suburban living room, flowered chintz curtains and all. Spectators entering the Kitchen for Part 1 of Shadowmann, found themselves sitting in what’s usually the performance space, facing the lobby, lighting booth, and the large doors opening to the street, through which several performers entered. Back at P.S. 122 in 2005 for Daylight, Michelson pushed the seating close to the back wall and created a shallow space that suggested an upscale hotel corridor.
Michelson sometimes introduces human activities into these fastidiously re-imagined spaces as modules, layered or strung together. Spoken text, props, dancing, and music combine to create a funky-smart world that has the illogical logic of dreams. In her new Dogs, the dream seems to be occurring in a sparsely inhabited mansion—a foyer out of a 1930s film. The fantastically beautiful visual design (by Michelson and Parker Lutz) softens the hard-edges of the BAM Harvey’s boxes and proscenium arch with pale beige drapes and extends the stage floor into the wings. A low curving bar supports footlights, and one row of theater seats has been removed to accommodate a row of upward-pointing spotlights (used only twice, as I remember). The black-and-white floor can dizzy both eyes and mind even before the piece starts. Look at the patterns one way, and you see four petalled flowers; blink and formerly negative spaces (curved-edge diamonds) zoom into prominence; look along a diagonal, and you see rows of lozenges. Two chairs and a white, faux wrought-iron table bearing a plate piled with roast chicken occupy center stage. Some distance away on either side stand two “trees” with spotlights blooming on curved metals stems.
Only one dancer (Lutz) inhabits this vast space. She’s wearing a filmy white robe with streamers at the wrist over a white unitard (costumes by Deanna Berg), and her hair is corn-rowed and pulled into a high bun of the sort Martha Graham used to favor. She dances and dances and dances (there’s more energetic choreographed movement in Dogs than in any previous Michelson work). The steps are mildly, softly balletic, but, given the floaty costume, they also have a Duncanesque aura. Lutz, barefoot, is almost always erect and on half-toe; she spins, gestures fluently, lightly flings a leg high—a lone, small figure doggedly sending an enigmatic, subtly varying message. From time to time a front drop descends and almost immediately rises to reveal Lutz in a different spot onstage. As she persists, the clever thrumming guitar music by Bert Janusch disappears (it has already slowed down to a roar while she eats a few bites of chicken, then speeded up again). In its place, we hear the first of many selections from Léo Delibes’ score for the ballet Sylvia—bombastic marches, sweet waltzes, foreboding horn calls, oriental reveries, the lot. Lutz loosely acknowledges the music’s tempo and phrasing but never its dramatic mood changes or the shifts in Davison Scandrett and Michelson’s stunning lighting.
The choreographer and Jennifer Howard make several forays into the space, dressed and coiffed like Lutz, but in black. Delibes’s fateful passages definitely suit these weird, coolly seductive sisters, as they flourish around each other in a near corner, exit, and return, first wearing only their unitards, then gold-belted tunics. Lutz expands her territory with skips and mazurka steps; later she falls and rolls on the floor. Echoes of another theatrical world permeate the first act of Dogs; the black and white dance-alikes, the 19th-century music, the pools of light, the smoke, and the precise, airy steps allude to ballet. But other, stranger elements crop up, like the projected head of a black, glowing-eyed cat. Michelson collapses over the table, and Lutz shakes her violently, while, in the distance, Howard holds an arabesque penché. My mind snaps back to Alice, the Cheshire Cat, and the drowsy Dormouse. Black and white figure in chess as well as among ballet swans.
I hear later that tables decorated with the reverse of the floor design offered free chicken in the lobby at intermission. Another calculated surprise. And that’s nothing to those in the second half. The curtain goes up, and smoke billows out. A lot of smoke, tinged with red lighting. Through it, we can barely see two women galloping around in filmy white—Lutz and Howard, we presume. But wait! As the fumes abate, these women appear slightly younger. A rock beat pushes under Mike Iveson’s music, and they reappear, busily dancing, in leotards that are backless way down past the start of their buttocks. When the lights brighten at the back of the space, we can see that the people sitting at either end of the table, wearing pink skirts and in a pink glow, are Michelson and Lutz, soon joined by Howard. This isn’t Carroll’s mad tea party, but it’s mad enough. In smart, funny, dislocated dialogue, the women talk and argue. The food “tastes like dog” (the only outright reference to the title). Michelson is both disdained and defended as a “cripple.” They complain about the rain (sound design by James Lo). Lutz wants a new window installed, preferably tomorrow, to catch more light. There’s some dissension and confusion among the women as to whether a hoped-for dessert is actually leftovers. Greg Zuccolo, dressed as Lutz was at the outset of the piece, recaps her style, but ends collapsed after crawling around the table on his belly. Downtown dance writer Henry Baumgartner—white-bearded, and wearing a suit—serves wine from a rose bottle, and offers a run-down of dessert possibilities. The dancing clones return, and zebras frolic on the back wall as the curtain descends.
On the way out, we’re handed information about those performers deliberately not listed in the program: Baumgartner, Alice Downing, and Laura Weston.
It may be that with Dogs, Michelson—who’s been waylaid by injuries and says this may be her last dance—is revisiting her career in supremely oblique ways. The production is provocative as well as spectacular (her BAM budget was $157,000)—eliding theater life and real life, facts and dreams. Michelson risks much in her willingness—her desire—to baffle and startle us with this brainy, exasperating piece. Because of her meticulous constructions, we have to believe that there’s a reason for everything we don’t understand, and simply let her postmodern reverie delight our eyes and tease our minds.