Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview:
I don’t really know Sarah Michelson, not really. We see each other at shows, occasionally; we had tea together once. She has been a downtown myth to me for a number of years, a dancer and choreographer whom I admire. The few (important) works I’ve seen of hers have made me tremble, have scared me a little—in a good way. Something about their odd imagination, their severe rigor, and precise stage world. Something about what she does that I don’t know, can’t know, and don’t want to know. I’ve enjoyed this shaky and indeterminate exchange very much . . .
– Ralph Lemon
Dancer and choreographer Sarah Michelson has described herself as making “work that risks rejection based on its aesthetics and, at its deepest structural core, denies safety in favor of trying to understand through action.” For Dover Beach, performed in Cardiff, Wales and at The Kitchen, New York (2007–2009), she collaborated with composer Peter Drungle and visual designers Parker Lutz and Charlotte Cullinan. Michelson’s new work, Devotion, (premiering at The Kitchen in January) is a ballet inspired by playwright Richard Maxwell’s writing. Reversing her former process of inventing movement for the “naive body,” Michelson now chooses the opposite challenge—the non-original and “derivative” form.
For this BOMB interview Michelson met with fellow dancer and choreographer Ralph Lemon. Both of them being intensely immersed in their work—Michelson rehearsing Devotion, and Lemon touring with his latest performance, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?—they intersected this past fall at Michelson’s studio space in the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York, where they settled on the floor and immediately started catching up with each other even before the digital recorder was turned on.
Ralph Lemon So how’s it going?
Sarah Michelson Where were we? We were talking about, oh, APAP [Association of Performing Arts Presenters]. I’ve never done APAP. Nobody takes my work. It’s too difficult; it’s not attractive.
RL But what if presenters from an array of venues come to The Kitchen in January and like your new work and want to book it?
SM My work only seems to be attractive to practitioners in the field. There’s some kind of timely nature to it, place and time. So APAP would be futile. They’re not ready to move fast enough. Also, there’s just too much choreography in my work these days and in that way “nothing to show.”
But you are one of the people I think about a lot. I don’t know how you do it. You somehow manage to play—or traverse—the commercial market, work within it, and you still make whatever the fuck you want to make and have complete integrity. I think it has to do with how articulate you are about your work.
RL Well, I think I don’t piss people off. I get the feeling you piss people off.
SM I get that feeling too. (laughter)
RL When I look back at the support of my work—and yes, I have always done what I needed to do—it’s mostly based on friends. Friends in positions of support, presenters, curators—they don’t really know what they’re going to get.
SM But they believe in you—
RL They believe in me. There’s a trust. I don’t know how you translate what that means to other artists. I never learned that. It just happened.
SM But maybe it has something to do with your intelligence and your articulateness and the gentle timbre of your voice and the way you look wisely into another’s eyes or something. (laughter) Whereas, I think I’m pushy, and bitchy, and driven.
RL Yeah, but that’s also what I admire—not to romanticize it—but at the end of the day, you’re just making your work. And your work’s some of the best in the city, always.
SM Thanks, Ralph. That’s nice.
RL That’s a truth. But then, I don’t have to deal with your bank account—
SM Oh God, I wish you would.
RL —and how you pay for things. But when I look at the work, it’s so emphatic. It has a vision. I always walk away feeling very moved, or disturbed, or irritated—in a good way, a cellular way; it’s not in my brain. It’s striking me on some primary level. And that, to me, is a mark of really good work. You’re consistent with that. I guess I’m kind of oblivious, or maybe I have the privilege to say this, but part of me feels like it doesn’t matter if the wrong people don’t like it.
SM Oh, I agree. I have an audience of like four people, truly, in my heart, and I’m one of them. And my work is for those three people and me. Of course it’s dependent on people coming to the theater; I don’t have an arrogant stance in relation to that. But on the other hand, when I’m making the gaze of it, the experience of it is not directed for the masses. It’s really directed toward a certain kind of dance lover, someone who’s watching—really watching, and watching in context, and watching completely.
RL Are you okay with this idea of a “four-person audience”? Do you find strength in the illusion of that argument? There’s something very beautiful about it.
SM I’m totally okay with that. I’m not necessarily okay with it when I get completely ripped to shreds in the press. I want to be okay with it, but I get my feelings hurt, like everybody, I guess, because it’s your name and people Google you and—
RL Thousands of people are reading it.
SM —reading, “She makes a piece of shit.” So I’m not quite quiet about that, but I want to be, in terms of the knowledge that my audience is real small and real specific. I feel very, very lucky. It’s a source of strength in a certain way. It gives me faith to go back to my source and be more reductionist. To remove any gimmick. To remove anything helpful, any signposts. It’s not for tourists. The four-person audience fantasy exists in order to return me to the matter of my true interest and not be distracted by wanting to be popular. I never have been, but now I’m also practiced at it.
RL That’s very healthy. It sends you to a place that’s more focused, as opposed to freaking out, or becoming cynical, or going to Broadway.
SM Yeah, somehow the tiny audience I care about gives me the freedom and the power to just be.
RL Do you have strategies? It’s a silly question, but how do you continue to make work? There’s always that other element, the work needs to be supported. How do you keep it going?
SM I don’t know how. I guess, eventually, it’s going to run out. (laughter) I don’t have a strategy at all—except that I will keep going somehow. Somehow.
RL But there’s this element of real life that’s there for you, supporting your work. You have a family, a beautiful daughter. That stuff’s very real. And as that requires a certain amount of attention and support, it can also be part of what supports the ongoing work. You and your life aren’t falling apart.
SM No. Maybe a little. (laughter)
RL The work may feel that way but that’s inherent, I think, in any kind of art making.
SM Interestingly, I had my daughter, Prudence, who’s now almost two and, for better or worse, I didn’t stop work for a second. She was born on November 21st 2008 and in January 2009, I had the Laurie Anderson show at BAM. Now I look back at that thinking, Whoa. I just didn’t stop. I think that’s given me a certain kind of understanding of myself—if I didn’t stop for that I’m not going to stop for anything. I never imagined myself having a studio baby, or a theater kid, but guess what?
RL That’s the remarkable part, right? It works. There’s a transgressive element in your choreography that feels like it is or could be dangerous, to those inside and to those watching it. That you’ve incorporated a family into that seems ultimately healthy.
Let’s talk a bit about Dover Beach, the last work I saw. I loved its use of space at The Kitchen—the piece was incredible, heroic, and impossible. I know you didn’t have a lot of money to do that, and what you pulled out of your hat was really encouraging, and inspiring—from concept to production. The use of the girls was beautifully strange. It made me really nervous, from a guy’s point of view. Because they were all so good. You stripped their adolescence from them, not in a dark way, but in a way that served the work. Yet that adolescence was still there. I felt like they understood something we didn’t understand. They were dancing in this void, between their young bodies and being adults.
SM Yeah, they were totally in on it. We did talk about that: what are they, how old are they, and what does that mean? Gwen [Gwenllian Davies], Lollie [Latyshia Antonio], and Non [Griffiths] were nine when we first started the production in Wales. By the time we got to New York (in 2009) they were 11—that’s a huge change. In the beginning they were shuffling their feet; they couldn’t dance. They were little. But Non always looked out of her face that way; she had that gaze.
RL What was the impulse for incorporating these children?
SM My earlier works: Shadowmann had the girls and Daylight had like 50 girls, so there’s a history. But then I went to Wales. James Tyson, the performance programmer at Chapter Arts in Cardiff, had been following my work and one day he said, “If I can do anything for you . . .” At the time, I wanted to be close to my granny who was 97 then (she’s now 101). So he offered me a six-week residency for research and development. That was 2006. I arrived in Wales after my first hip surgery, it was pouring rain, and there was nothing there. Then I found this ballet school in Chapter Arts and I just watched the classes.
In Cardiff, Dover Beach was supposed to be a little, local show for three nights, 40 people a night, but I treated it—it might as well have been BAM. I was just so damn obsessed. Then I became interested in the culture of dance, and in questions like, When does someone start to become a dancer, or How does information go into the body? What does that look like in a little girl in Wales or New York? And what about the older, trained dancer? And what happens if you see those two together? I just got curious about training and the body and culture—my own culture, I guess. It’s so Lilliputian in England.
There’s such high intellect but such naiveté or simplicity. It’s not always good, but seeing that manifest in the performers’ bodies was very beautiful to me. Sofia Britos, who was the little girl in the cage, had already such a different, pop understanding of her body. I just became curious about all that. You know, in Shadowmann the girls were all decorative—
RL Representative of what? Just adolescence?
SM The initial idea was that the girls were like miniature doppelgangers of a show that had already happened. In a weird way—not dissimilar from Dover Beach—Shadowmann became two shows: one that had already happened in another room in the same building, The Kitchen. There were these questions of time. I made the dance that the girls learned, Grivdon, a year before I made Shadowmann. What happens if we see what I did then and what I’m doing now, and what brings those ideas together? And then there’s youth and age, and then those things combined created their own pathway, really. But in no circumstance was it an intellectual choice to use the girls. I’m obviously very drawn to the naive body in the form of a preteen girl.
RL The naive body with very emotional material and sophisticated movement.
SM Well, yeah, with the imprints of me and that material, and them—the relationship between all three of those elements. And then all of my questions: What is theater? What are we looking at? Who is a star? What’s virtuosity? Why is virtuosity sometimes exciting and sometimes repulsive? That’s a very interesting question. There’s something automatic about virtuosity, sometimes. Also—and this is probably not something that you, being generous and open-spirited, would ask—there is the question of authorship. I’m curious about authorship in my time on the planet, in the studio: What am I making? Who’s making it and where are these ideas coming from?
So when you’re working with very young performers, who haven’t had very much information in their bodies—if they’re willing, it’s very clear to see my imprint, frankly. It’s so gross. But I’m spending my life doing this. I’m curious about how a sophisticated dancer can interpret from my body very swiftly into their own vocabulary, while an inexperienced, naive body has to be more literal.
RL Does it feel at all like some type of identity politics for you?
SM I don’t know what that is but—
RL There was a certain culturalization at play in the work, and it was very effective for me. I like issues of race as material, they’re activating. When I was watching Dover Beach, I thought, That is the whitest experimental work I’ve seen, ever. It was from a cultural point of view that I really didn’t understand. And the way you framed it, and dressed it, and just held it. It was so white to me, that it became—
SM —It was bourgeois, practically.
RL I don’t know, but it was just very foreign and therefore very, very compelling. I kept thinking, I don’t know this. I don’t know this culture.
SM The Welsh version took place in natural light in an old schoolroom, which we painted as a set, ripping off an old George Stubbs painting. Do you know George Stubbs? Eighteenth century, a lot of liverymen, horses, and carriages, and Oh, he’s cleaning the boots while the master’s not there? Those kinds of—
RL Right, it speaks to a former idea of civilization.
SM Completely. So all the red-and-black outfits clearly read as riding habits—jazz-dance riding habits. They were much more theatrical at The Kitchen, but the black back wall at the Kitchen did do something country-homeish. Yes, I was curious about representation, the bourgeoisie, that kind of classical art, and what it means to modernity and experimentation. What is experimentation and what is the representation of experimentation on the stage? So it did feel transgressive in the way that you mean. I’m experimental in relationship to society in a way that is not popular, necessarily, in downtown dance. But then it was. People seemed to like the show.
RL I guess from my point of view I felt you had ownership of that material.
SM I felt like I did.
RL I couldn’t have done a piece like that for many different reasons, but that kind of framing . . . So getting back to this idea of authorship, another kind of imprint, it just advanced what’s possible for me. In this downtown New York community that we exist in, whatever it is, or not, what we do is what we choose to do. We’ve erased so much, for whatever reasons, about life and who we are and history and memory that could be useful in furthering a point.
SM I’ve become very interested in the craft of dance-making, and it’s a bit of a rope to hang myself with. It’s very difficult.
RL Are you saying that from a historical, canonized point of view? What does that mean?
SM Possibly, I am.
RL What’s the difference between that and experimentation, per se?
SM Well, it can be no difference. But my recent experience of doing work and being part of a community that is experimenting has taught me that much work is created from the desire to be popular, or seen, or understood. It’s at the root of the work, and it’s not necessarily an actual question about dance. I suppose I have a love for what has been rejected or moved on from. Maybe I want to be in a space that’s unpopular. Somehow I’m drawn to that.
RL But there’s a part of you that’s also unmaking, right?
SM Yes, I guess.
RL The nice resonant confusion in your work is that it’s working within a certain kind of classicism that you alter, or pervert.
SM Right. Totally.
RL Maybe it’s not the unmaking of it. It seems that you go deep inside of it to expose what its innards are like, which doesn’t necessarily make for comfortable viewing.
SM It’s true that there is a kind of totalitarianism to my shows. The experience you have is total; it’s an immersion into my particular quest. For whatever reason the quest exists. And in immersion, there is exposure. There is a question. Somehow we have to arrive at my question. And then there is the presentation of something that, on the surface, could easily be rejected. My quest is to ask you to not reject it. We know it’s rejectable but I’m gonna keep presenting it to you so you can look again and not reject it. And you are right, there’s a certain formality, which can be read as classicism, perhaps.
RL Well, the work demands a certain kind of attention.
SM Yeah. If you look away for a minute it will forget you. (laughter)
RL It’s intimidating. Really hard-core work with integrity is intimidating. You know?
SM I do. But then, isn’t it a relief, too?
RL Well, for some of us. This new piece of mine was a little scary for me. It was the first work I’ve made with a conscious understanding of an audience where people are consistently walking out of the show. And I thought, Oh, at my age, that’s a good thing.
SM If there is an authority, people feel free to not “like” it. They can simply say, I dislike this and walk out. I heard that it was an amazing show. I’m sure I wouldn’t have walked out.
RL It sounds like you are at a mildly comfortable place with your work. From my point of view, it’s always clearly articulated and rigorous. That’s such an important place to be with one’s practice because then it doesn’t matter what people say. But then, you wanna be liked on some level; that’s human.
SM That’s where I am with this one. I’m looking and I’m looking and I can’t believe what I’m doing. Fucking goddamnit, I’m doing this. Whew. While I know there’s a long way to go, there are parts of it that I know are definitely going on the stage. I’m like, Holy crap, okay, that’s what’s gonna happen: I’m gonna be reamed and that’s fine. It’s going on the stage anyway. It’s a weird decision.
RL Why do you think you’ll be reamed? I mean, you have not even finished it, why talk about being criticized already?
SM I just don’t know that it’s okay to do what I’m doing.
RL But you’re not criticizing that?
RL So you’re okay on some level?
SM Yeah, I’m okay. It’s potentially very dull, what I’m doing.
RL Dull? Compared to what? What about this work has that potential?
SM Well, for example, it’s gonna be long, possibly. So it could be dull just because of that. I usually don’t make a long show.
RL Like what is long?
SM Well, not like Gatz, not six, seven hours. (laughter)
RL Half as long?
SM Not even, but a couple hours possibly.
RL Long is relative. I think that’s exciting.
SM Good. Hopefully we can make it happen by January.
RL You know the importance of making an argument against what we think is expected. We get pushed around in this medium where a dance is supposed to be this or that and they are all too long.
SM No, this one is long, it’s monolithic. It’s potentially very boring if it’s not your cup of tea. It’s still approaching authorship but through more of a known model. Dover Beach felt like each movement was a process of movement invention, like there was no assumed movement, not one. Not that there weren’t things that were recognizable, especially Greg Zucollo and Allegra Herman’s duet, but the rest of it, for example, Non Griffith’s and Laura Weston’s duet, was painstakingly innovative with every movement. My new work does not have that in the same way; it’s coming at something known from the inside, doing authorship from inside form, which sounds simplistic but feels complex.
RL Translation of authorship—beginning with you and your working with actors?
SM Not really. The actors don’t really speak.
RL Actors’ bodies and your movement language, then.
SM Yeah, but you know what, Ralph? The casting is totally crucial but it doesn’t matter if it’s Non or if it’s Jim Fletcher or if it’s the exquisite Eleanor Hullihan. The quest is the same. Whatever it is in me, I’m burning to get something from the inside of the person through these particular interests I have. I just keep doing it over and over again, and I’m changing the question or changing the approach to understand something about why I’m doing this. Why am I doing this? I’m 46 this year, so, basically, I’ve spent my life doing what I do—with this form, with these questions, and that’s what’s happening. My work is a result of that constant, never-ending desire to get to the bottom of it. What is a dance?
RL It’s as if the questions take on more weight.
SM Yeah. This new work started with several chapters of a story by the playwright Richard Maxwell. Richard asked me to make a narrative ballet from the material, which is somehow evoking loss. I have always felt very connected to his writing and directing so I said yes, although I was afraid of the collaboration. It has been great, difficult, new, terrifying, and exciting. Talking with him (and doing a showing together), I understood something crucial about the way this work should go. Richard is a constant presence for me, although he has only been in the studio once.
In Dover Beach, I had four girls and eight adults. For the new piece I still have a girl, she’s 13, but she’s still a girl. And then there are five adults. Obviously, I don’t want her to appear in any way the same as the girls did in Dover Beach, even though she is in a duet with an older male. So, on the most simplistic and banal level, how do I then make something with the same ingredients? It’s a gimmick from the outside, to work with this girl and an adult man.
RL But it’s more than a gimmick.
SM Actually, I work really, really hard against gimmick. For me, it’s more the question of how do I put something in there that could be a gimmick and make it absolutely no way that it could possibly be perceived as a gimmick. That’s just one aspect of thinking about this dance. How do I completely reframe the same thing so that there’s no way you have the same understanding. Can I do that? Or, like in Dover Beach, can we dance to a poem?
RL That was very nervy—
SM No, we can’t do that, so let’s do it.
RL And everyone took it very seriously. Ultimately, it was very okay.
SM So weird. I feel completely disgusted every time I even see that section in the video, but I couldn’t turn back from it. This can’t be ironic, I have to just do it, and I have to say, Look folks, this is contemporary. It is not, but I’m framing it as if it is. So then come more questions, like, Whoa, how did I get away with that? I loved it and I hated it. I loved the whole question, that kind of nasty part of the show.
RL Did you get some sense of clarity from Dover Beach that you know is supporting how you’re going forward? I reread a review from Deborah Jowitt who called it your best work—
SM —to date, yes.
RL I thought, That’s really interesting, and who is Deborah to say that, what voice and whose judgment does she represent?
SM I think she just liked it the best.
RL She said it was your best work. She didn’t say I think it’s your best. I found that very abstract and kind of strange—
SM It is confusing, isn’t it? I believe she meant it seemed mature. A few people have said that to me: You’ve made your first mature work as a woman. Perhaps that’s because I wasn’t in it, because it wasn’t the old crew. Maybe there’s something rebellious and childlike about us and this was me as a director on the outside controlling this whole world on the stage.
RL But the discussion could’ve been more about you giving us this visual, comprehensible world to be comfortable or uncomfortable in, watching your brilliant per-usual strangeness?
SM Maybe it was a more successful frame. The process of Dover Beach was three years long because it started in Wales, that was the first part of the show, and then, when I brought the piece to the US, I had to replace performers. In New York I was working with this girl Rebecca whom I had just auditioned and knew nothing about. She was not necessarily as charismatic as Parker Lutz. I became very interested again in this idea of not relying on what’s in the room, so not relying on the charisma. Creating the performer through movement only is a lot of deconstruction as well as construction. It’s very invasive, it’s totally traditional, there’s no improvisation whatsoever. It’s really anal direction with five, six hour-long rehearsals, just with one person. But I got a certain confidence from it about how I’m directing—what it is I want and where I want to go, which has brought me to this place where I am now working through form in the reverse way, which feels terrifying. But I’m interested, at the moment, in being a choreographer in that way.
RL When you say in a reverse way, what do you mean specifically? How is it different?
SM Well, in Dover Beach my focus was movement invention with these girls, and construction, but there was no choreographic landscape. I worked in this room and made movement with them. The choreography, the movements themselves, was the work, and then that would make the pathway. So movement invention and originality, and the possibility of originality were the focus. This time I’m really working with derivative form and going from the inside of something known as a love act.
RL A love act? That sounds really nice.
SM I don’t know if it will be. But anyway, it feels bold and bad, but that’s what I’m doing. I don’t have a choice.
RL Bold and wrong; not bad, right?
SM I’m terrified. It’s a very short, short time for me to make this work. I’ve had only one year. That’s not long enough.
RL But don’t you always feel terrified?
SM I do always feel terrified, but I think this one might be much less formed. I also feel excited that maybe it’s not ready. That would be very fresh for me, for the work to not be ready. I always feel not ready, but actually I am ready. But this time I think I’m really not ready, but I’m kind of into that feeling. A very confident artist would be able to not beready, and I’m always just so nervous. So I’m hoping I can be not ready.
RL There’s a different kind of aliveness in the not ready.
SM I mean, prepared but not ready.
RL It’s called Devotion?
SM Yes. Devotion.