Sarah Michelson’s Cryptic Modes and Codes at Bard

“I’ve worked a lot with kids and younger people over my history,” she said in an interview at the Fisher Center, alluding to works like “Dover Beach” (2009), whose cast included several adolescent girls, and “Devotion” (2011), in which the 14-year-old Non Griffiths delivered an exacting, luminous solo.

“I’m really aware that when you work with people, especially younger people, you leave some kind of imprint in their training or their understanding,” she said. “And I guess I take seriously what that might mean.” At Bard she wanted to work from “a place of trust, not me coming in and auditioning dancers and having them represent me or something.”

While Ms. Michelson is known for shrouding herself and her work in mystery, it’s no secret that she demands a lot from her dancers — a severity that’s not for everyone. Revered or criticized, she leaves strong impressions. Take the second entry in her four-part “Devotion” series, “Devotion Study #1 — The American Dancer,” which earned her the Bucksbaum Award at the 2012 Whitney Biennial. If you were there, you probably haven’t forgotten the image of Nicole Mannarino, in sweat-soaked royal blue, striding backward in circles upon circles upon circles across the museum’s vast fourth-floor gallery. In more recent endeavors, like “Tournamento” (2015), at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Ms. Michelson has pushed notions of the dancer as athlete and competitor to further extremes.

“If something looks or feels familiar or easy, she goes in another direction,” said Ms. Lafferty, who has worked with Ms. Michelson since 2014. “Nothing is going to be perfect or comfortable, and that’s true on every level of the work.”

It’s true for those watching, too. There are barriers to entry.

“You’re really not meant to feel like you understand what’s going on, but at the same time you want to understand,” said David Velasco, the editor of “Sarah Michelson,” a new book of essays and interviews published by the Museum of Modern Art. “That’s the line she walks: Are you going to care enough to try to figure it out?”


Joanna Warren working on Ms. Michelson’s “September2017/.”

Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

Her students may have asked themselves the same. While tightly controlled in some ways (Ms. Michelson calls her work both…

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