Sunday, February 2, 2014

Devotion 4—Aiming for Ecstasy, if Not Perfection

Rachel Berman. Photo: Paula Court
Sarah Michelson's 4 is the final installment in the four-part Devotion project, and the second in the Whitney's fourth floor gallery; other parts took were presented at the Kitchen and MoMA. Michelson's work seems to have organically burrowed into the visual art world in part because she places such an emphasis on the entire performance environment—literally every detail that might be visible to audience members becomes an element in a vast installation/performance. To an extent, every choreographer does this, but Michelson has always taken it as close as possible to her idea of perfection.

This could mean painting an entire floor and wall panels, precisely managing every lighting angle and cue, specifying the type of seating and its immediate surrounds, or flipping the orientation of a venue. There is also the movement itself, around which everything else revolves, but it is one—albeit important—part of the whole. In that sense, it approaches the  operatic, in which every element is deliberate and interlocked (with one caveat*).

On its own, 4 stands as a study of jumping moves and forward rolls, spins, endurance, and the nature of a performance itself. There are numerous variants on the jump, and each dancer has her/his own signature version: straight up, hands darting out in okay signs; legs straight out; landing on one leg in a pose, or in a squat or lunge. (The spot where most of the jumping takes place appears to be a springy mat.) The dancers do forward rolls, outlining "D" shapes or circles, often wearing sweatshirts with padding on the spine, but often without that protection. Nicole Mannarino is once again a primary figure (Holy Spirit), as she was in Devotion Study #1 which was previously in the same space; in addition to jumps, she pivots on her toes in zig zags, crossing one foot coyly. Rachel Berman, in addition to being the Narrator, is the other Holy Spirit; her vocabulary includes deep, turned out lunges with a contracted torso and shooting arms that evoke a bit of Martha Graham's dogma. The movements are not from the dance canon; they derive from daily life and playing, but they are codified precisely according to Michelson's own vision.

Photo: Paula Court
The title is subject to varied interpretation. Is it religious? The obsessive retracings of pathways do evoke walking the Chartres labyrinth, and the repetitive jumping the whirling of Dervishes. Or does devotion refer to the relationship between the choreographer and her dancers and other collaborators? Not just with Michelson, but the trust implicit in the studio during the creation of any dance? Or is it Michelson's shorthand for what's required for a life as a choreographer?

The audience sits on hassocks covered in white canvas, lined three deep along the long wall opposite the elevators. (Among a laundry list of pre-show warnings, we were ominously informed that we would be sharing a seat with someone, but mercifully that did not happen.) We were split into sections by aisles used by the dancers as staging areas, in lieu of a true offstage. Guards are stationed at the stair entrance and in front of the elevators to prevent people from entering during the performance; they become nearly immobile statues that move occasionally, and are thanked by Michelson at the beginning of the performance. 

Michelson and curator Jay Sanders sit in the gallery speaking text by playwright Richard Maxwell. (Words caught in my notes: Proust, Milton, Shelley, a whole new level of choreography in the context of history, you always go home.) Near the end, Michelson recites numbers which correspondingly (or not) appear in green LEDs on the far wall of the gallery. Their dialogue intermixes with R&B played softly, as if at a distance; late in the work, Philip Glass' In the Upper Room begins, and with it the possibility of the ecstatic. (The same music, famous from the Twyla Tharp ballet of the same name, was used at the Kitchen.) *That said, music seems to be the weakest piece. In a January interview with Gia Kourlas, she admitted that she wasn't certain what the music would be, and in the end, it seems to be primarily ambient, other than the Glass.    

Indeed, Mannarino, sweating and in the zone, after several costume changes and a good hour of work behind her, smiles genuinely for the first time. A level of formality in the house had broken down; the dancers waved and signaled at one another, as Michelson held up fingers to signify a countdown. Now and then, she picked up discarded sweatshirts. She wore sloppy looking sweatpants covered with paint stains that matched the floor—clearly a reminder that she had painted the panels in abstract patterns of largely green and earth tones. While she is implicit in everything we're seeing, her immediate presence is in our ears, on the periphery, as a custodian.

Photo: Paula Court
Thinking back on it, I don't believe the dancers ever face us as they go through their jumping routines. Most of their performance faces away from us, toward the guards on duty. A pair of black men's shoes hang on that wall as well. The performers (also including John Hoobyar, Madeline Wilcox, and James Tyson) frequently move to the far corners, where their movements include squatting on their haunches facing the wall. When they are "offstage," waiting in the aisles, they turn to face the stage area, enjoining us as part of their team. 

We're close enough to feel the heat coming off their bodies. One had an open contusion on her spine, perhaps from doing somersaults, which elicits a measure of protective sympathy. But if you think about what athletes endure while going about their jobs, and ballerinas—bloody toes and awful injuries of all sorts—what's a contusion or two but a badge of honor? Hardly a stigmata.

The dancers' costumes changed from gymnastic-style long sleeved leotards in blue, to unitards of flesh and white, to black tights, to a floral bathing suit worn by Mannarino in the finale. White pared-down Converse All-Stars are worn throughout. Their hair is teased into afros. The sporty costumes are reminders of the basketball court-like shape of the gallery, underscored when the dancers casually toss off their sweatshirts mid-stage like basketball players pulling off their sweatpants when re-entering a game. In the closing moment (after a group hug by the dancers), recalling Devotion Study #1, a man wearing a horse head takes center stage and lies down like an odalisque, signaling the end. The lighting is most beautiful when it is primarily natural, coming from the famous geometric recessed window; it is augmented by soft golden light from one corner, and a closely-spaced row of spotlights topping one long wall.

I had a mixed reaction to Devotion Study #1 I think because of an overriding empathy with the performers, and what connective tissue torture the unending backward running seemed to entail, while I admired the dancers' endurance. But I found the first part of the project, Devotion (at the Kitchen), awe-inspiring, with its complete transformation of the space, and its Olympic-level calisthenics that showed the human body's potential. 4 belongs alongside Devotion. It quotes from that earlier work in movement and music, and in the effortful ecstasy resulting from it. Michelson mentions that she would like to return to the theater setting. That time is eagerly anticipated.


Footnote: 4 (closed) coincided neatly with the Whitney exhibition Rituals of Rented Island, a survey of performance art in the 1970s. While many of those projects had a shaggy dog, ad hoc, Fluxus quality, Michelson's defines a 21st century sleekness and exactitude that has perhaps come about from the digitization of everything. The gallery in which 4 took place will house a floor of the upcoming Whitney Biennial, a moment of calm before the storm.

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