“Devotion Study #1–The American Dancer”

"Sarah Michelson Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer" at 2012 Whitney Biennial, Photograph © Paula Court.

Dance is its own kind of religion. My first ballet teacher spent 15 years as a nun before returning to the dance world, and she always told the story of her conversion from ballerina to nun in terms of single-minded dedication. The object of the devotion was different, but the discipline and focus required were the same.

This memory returned to me while at Sarah Michelson’s marathon Devotion Study #1: The American Dancer, part of the Whitney Museum’s Biennial 2012 (thru March 11). One of two dance artists selected to be in residence for this year’s exhibition—Michael Clark is the other—Michelson has turned the fourth floor of the Whitney into a meditative performance space. With white walls, risers and chairs, the space is quite traditionalist, giving a nod to both performance and museum conventions: viewers get the pristine white expanse associated with visual art, but also a good, seated view of the action with the theatrical fourth wall intact. The dance floor itself is a scaled drawing of the floor plan of the Whitney’s iconic building. It’s an extraordinary detailed entity, in keeping with the spare setting, but the relationship of this to the work overall remained opaque.

Devotion Study #1 opens with a supposed dialogue between Michelson and theater director Richard Maxwell, who wrote the text. Their conversation circles around why they each create work, with the focus on Maxwell, and is a deliberate mix of the glib and the profound. The first performer, Nicole Mannarino enters during this dialogue, and begins striding backwards in circles on the balls of her feet with her arms outstretched wide in a cross-like position.  In time to the relentless ticking of a metronome, overlaid by a soundscore by Jason Lo that is vaguely reminiscent of organ chords, Mannarino describes various circles—small, large, serpentine—while maintaining a serene, but concentrated presence.  Over the course of the next 85 minutes, other dancers gradually join her and leave in reverse order, maintaining the tempo, circular structure and patterns with drill-like precision. Eleanor Hullihan briefly jumps forward(!) near the end, but other than a lengthy pause where the entire cast of six stands in a line, this is the only break from backwards locomotion.  The work concludes with an oblique narrative about the female child God fathered at the same time as Jesus, the “angel of ambivalence,” who ultimately surrenders.

There are some quietly beautiful moments here, but they are unequal to the task of sustaining the full 90 minutes of this performance marathon. Dance is about more than endurance, on either the part of the performer or the audience, but we see only one facet. The movement Michelson demands of her dancers physically recalls high heels and ballet’s pointe work—gendered, visually seductive but restrictive—and given the non-stop, repetitive backwards motion, can only be described as grueling.

As for the audience, we had it relatively easy in comparison, although there were a couple of walk-outs, plus that pause in the middle was heavily used to handle emails and texts. Did we benefit from sitting captive for 90 minutes? My reaction might have been more positive if Devotion Study #1 were half as long, or it was staged as an installation, where the audience could move around the space at will. Instead, the “devotion” was forced: the dancers were obliged to execute the relentless choreography, and we the audience sat stationary, obediently following performance conventions.

The Whitney Museum’s materials state that the Biennial “provides a look at the current state of contemporary art in America.” In this framework, as one of two dance artists selected for the 2012 Biennial, Michelson disproportionately represents the entire field. Repetition and minimalism had their heyday in the dance and performance world 25+ years ago, and I presume it was a conscious choice to tap these structures for Devotion Study #1. Here, Michelson has taken walking, a pedestrian movement emblematic of the Judson Dance Theater’s explorations of the 1960s, and made it both highly physical and stylized by moving backwards on half-toe.

If Devotion Study #1 is a way of refiltering dance’s recent history through a contemporary lens, as the notes on Michelson’s residency imply, what is the larger take-away? Is the dance field looking backwards, revisiting its past in a circular fashion? Arguably yes, although the same could be said for the current state of other art forms, and Devotion Study #1 doesn’t tackle the issue in a particularly illuminating way.

Secondly, Devotion Study #1 throws into sharp relief the long-standing, problematic relationship between physical sacrifice (repetition and endurance in this context) and a murky notion of Beauty or High Art. Dance requires a lot of the human body, and that cost or effort is usually hidden from the audience. By putting the dancer’s physical effort center stage, Michelson’s choreography exposes the exertion required at the same time it exploits it: two of the women are onstage and constantly moving the duration of the piece, and are quickly drenched in sweat, yet they persevere. Do we find the work more beautiful or awe-inspiring because of the physical struggle on display? For the audience, there is something discomfiting about complacently sitting and watching this strenuous, yet mind-numbing effort. While my calves gave a sympathetic twinge, I remained emotionally unmoved by Devotion Study #1: although it touches on ideas of substance, it retreads familiar territory with little resolution.

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  1. Pingback: American dancers | Leatherandlace
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