Sarah Michelson (b. 1964), 4, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, January 2014. Photograph © Paula Court
Sarah Michelson pulled off a major upset when she took home the Bucksbaum Award at the Whitney Biennial in 2012: The prize (basically “Best of the Biennial”) is given for contributions to the visual arts… but Michelson is a choreographer. Not that the two are mutually exclusive these days.
In the past few years, dance and museums have been engaged in a serious courtship. It’s not a new thing—they’ve had flings in the past, and the lines between dance and performance art have been blurred for decades. But what makes this wave of flirtations unique is the level of institutional attention (and resources) invested in identifying, presenting, and even acquiring performance-based work.
Reasons range from a curatorial shift away from objects on pedestals in white rooms to the proven commercial draw of performance exhibitions (thanks, Marina Abramovic) to a broader social desire for interactivity in the age of the smartphone. It hasn’t all been embraced by the dance community though—an internal debate includes both pros and cons.
In any case, Michelson has been one of the most visible examples and prominent beneficiaries of the phenomenon, which is still too new to move from the “trend” column to the “sea change” column. At the moment it’s hovering in between, much like opinion about Michelson herself. Some champion her as a hero of 21st-century dance, while others find her work derivative and overpraised.
Her new work, titled 4, which opened on January 24 and runs through February 2, is Michelson’s triumphant post-Bucksbaum return to the Whitney as well as the culminating (for now) piece in her four-part “Devotion” series. Like the previous three, 4 continues her investigation into wildly virtuosic, almost oppressively repetitive movement that fits within a strictly controlled structure; a post-modernist shrug mixed with ballet-like rigor and precision.
For over 90 minutes, her dancers jump, twirl and summersault relentlessly in the museum’s fourth floor gallery space (the audience sits on four rows of round ottomans on one side). Words come into play, too.
At one point early on, Michelson engages in a live, scripted, fragmented voiceover with Whitney curator Jay Sanders, who says, among other forms of praise, “You’re basically rewriting the book on dance.” Either this is just a terribly meta way to poke fun at the hype, or it’s uncomfortably narcissistic.
Michelson’s worked has been called the art of endurance, and there’s something to that. Simple gestures—a lunge, a hop—become athletic feats when pushed to extremes. It’s vaguely reminiscent of hamsters on a wheel—and that comparison isn’t meant to be dismissive.
With Michelson, the pedestrian starts to look heroic, especially when set to the right music. At first, the music (classic soul) is muted, as if played on a radio somewhere. It then builds to a cinematic score, as if to say: Whatever we do can become epic when set to the proper soundtrack.
A few peculiar details are thrown in to suggest underlying meaning: dancers are referred to in the program as "Holy Spirit" and "Adam and Eve;" an electronic scoreboard in the upper left corner flashes arbitrary numbers which may be points in a competition; a man in a donkey head (a cameo from previous “Devotion” appearances) joins a group hug then reclines center stage to conclude the performance. It’s not particularly well integrated so the significance, if there is any, dissolves.
Is Michelson blazing trails? Even if, like Sanders, you can justify it theoretically, the evidence, as presented in “4,” doesn’t seem to support such a conclusion. But that doesn’t mean the work isn’t engaging, expertly crafted and worthwhile. As with the hamsters, there’s something mundane but strangely compelling—and respectable—in the effort.
Sarah Michelson's '4' continues through Feb. 2 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.