Dancing at the Whitney

All images from Sarah Michelson's "Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer," February 26, 2012 at 2012 Whitney Biennial (photograph © Paula Court and courtesy the Whitney Museum)

“It seems like performance art had stolen the limelight away from all the really exciting things that were going on in dance itself,” Ms. [Elisabeth] Sussman said. “We’re recognizing that.”
— NY Times interview with Gia Kourlas, February 2012

When the list of the 2012 Whitney Biennial artists was made public, it included a very interesting trio of names, probably not immediately recognizable to most of the visual arts world: choreographers Sarah Michelson and Michael Clark, and theater director/playwright Richard Maxwell. All three are extremely well known in their respective fields, but how and why are they relevant to the Biennial audience? Hyperallergic asked me to write a series of articles looking at performing arts, not performance art, in the museum context, and whether it’s an important, or completely arbitrary, shift in visual arts programming.

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Sarah Michelson’s “Devotion Study #1: The American Dancer” is a brilliant meditation on the transcendent capabilities of the art of choreography. And totally the perfect work for the Biennial crowd.

To start with, Michelson has the entire fourth floor of the Whitney Museum.  A beautiful room and vast space, on which she has laid the architectural floor plan of the museum. The world of visual arts is nothing if not self referential. We’re already feeling at home. A reminder from the very start – we are in a museum. All bets are off.

High on one wall, a simple likeness of Michelson herself glares out in neon green. Hanging from the center of the ceiling is a tremendous light cluster chandelier, like a dense bouquet of aluminum work lamps. It has the potential to get bright as hell in here. There is a constant tick-tock coming from speakers on the floor, unwaveringly keeping time. The ushers are dressed in white, wearing t-shirts with another Michelson portrait drawing on them. She’s been franchised. Another poke at the visual arts world of commercial product, the artist as sell-able object. Also, I think of how, in art, an artist’s name can go from proper noun to the thing itself: Isn’t that a Donald Judd? The artist becomes a kind of stamp — especially in a world where the production of a work is often executed far from the artist’s own hand.

As the piece begins, there’s a kind of voiceover play, interestingly enough between the characters (or real persons) Sarah Michelson and Richard Maxwell. They talk of lots of things, and it’s both funny and pointed, some kind of version of My Dinner with Andre. Richard says things like: “Love. Hate. And lust. Greed. Porn.” Sarah or Richard says “Could you say there’s skill involved in what you do?” or “The artist matures, inevitably.” “You memorize through repetition the message you want to convey.”

While this is going on, a woman in a plunge neck 1970s-looking blue flowing bodysuit enters, and begins travelling backwards, in broad, athletic circles. There is a clear pattern to what she’s doing, and she does it over and over and over again. A rhythm is established between her and the tick-tock (which never ceases). At some point, she exits. The voiceover play stops. We look at the space in tick-tock silence. She re-enters.

The interview is repeated, but this time there seem to be slight variations — perhaps it’s a different cut of the same interview — some things edited out, some other things inserted, it’s a variation, and a repetition. The dancer in blue rarely stops moving — she begins to sweat — it shows on her body and in the blue fabric. She just keeps stepping backwards, long, hard strides, rarely coming down from tiptoe. Another dancer joins her, this one in army fatigue green with bare legs. She does the same movements, sometimes together, sometimes in a different pattern. They rotate around and amongst each other, just backwards concentric circle after backwards concentric circle. There is a very post-modern-sounding (Reich, Glass, Riley) chord sequence being played against the tick-tock.

It is lulling, and as another dancer (this one in a white leotard only) joins the first two, I start to think about Lucinda Childs and Robert Wilson. And also that the idea being explored here is the circle. The pattern of a circle in space.

I think about the title — “Devotion Study #1.” And visual arts — people like Yves Klein, or Sol Lewitt or Donald Judd or Dan Flavin. In dance, it seems we are constantly being asked to create a completely new experience, new movement, somehow pioneer a new physical language. Yet, here at the Whitney, there is a room a few floors below dedicated solely to white paintings on canvas by Agnes Martin. That’s right. No surprise to any museum goer, probably, but that’s the link. The devotion. To something — color. The deep exploration of what white means on a canvas. The way Judd, Flavin, Klein and Lewitt find a certain interest — in pattern, in blue, in boxes, in flourescents and just devote themselves to it. What are the possibilities of the box?

Well, Michelson here shows us the possibilities of the body in motion, in a circle. The simplicity and rigor of humans in space, constantly tracing various circular patterns. What happens if seemingly small, but therefore also seismic, shifts occur? A character enters wearing a horse’s head. The dancers stop for a while. They stand, switching their weight from one foot to the other, between lengthy pauses, and in nearly perfect unison. The cluster lights get as bright as the sun — if you look into it, you’ll see traces for a while. There’s a voice. “Go” it says. The horse head leaves. Slowly, one by one, the others exit after taking up the circles again. The cluster lights fade. Sometimes you notice them, sometimes they disappear. Their absence is palpable, and you have plenty of time to think about how their presence affected the rest.

At some point, one dancer starts to do leaps in the circle pattern. Forward and backward. She must be exhausted. But it’s a startling shock of a moment, as if someone had run into the Agnes Martin room downstairs with a brush soaked in bright red, and dashed it across one of the canvases. What happens if one other element is introduced? You see the shimmering and infinite possibilities. Near the end, as part of all this exiting, the voice and character of Sarah Michelson returns, telling a story about God, a me-chief and a daughter named Marjorie. “She’s going to understand too much to be happy.” An artist is an artist, after all, no matter the medium. To the art world, I ask: “Sound familiar?”

Sarah Michelson In Residence” took place from March 1–11 at the Whitney Museum (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) as part of the 2012 Whitney Biennial, which continues until May 27.

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