Sarah Michelson

January 13, 2011

Sarah Michelson
The Kitchen, NYC

January 13–22, 2011

Reviewed by Siobhan Burke


Rebecca Warner in
Devotion. Photo by Paula Court, courtesy The Kitchen.


There are dances that tell stories, and there are those, like Sarah Michelson’s Devotion, that distill familiar ones to an essence, wringing out qualities that you didn’t know were there. In this new work, a collaboration with Richard Maxwell and his New York City Players, the stories are biblical, and the essence resides in a peculiar place between ecstatic and austere. Letting Michelson take you there is a near-transcendent experience.

The seats of the blackbox, rotated from their usual configuration, line the long side of the space. In the wide darkness, things loom: from the ceiling, two hulking clusters of scoop lights, with a third sprouting up from the floor; on the walls, four paintings by TM Davy, which look like Baroque portraits. These cast a saintly glow over modern men and women, one of whom appears to be Michelson.

Not only does Michelson’s image preside over the work—its “creator,” lingering—but also her voice, which delivers Maxwell’s poetic text at the beginning and end. In the opening narration, amid refracted meditations on Genesis and the birth of Christ, we hear the inner dialogues of Adam and Eve in Paradise: “Adam thought, There is so much to share. Thank you.” Eve, tasting knowledge, realizes, “Whatever demons possess me, they are doubled by desire.” The two of them “felt fear together, of falling.”

Meanwhile, Rebecca Warner (the Narrator, embodied) plunges through a courageous solo; she is nowhere near falling, but her tension suggests a holding-on-tight. Utterly focused, she strikes one extreme Cunningham-esque pose after another: wide fourth-position pliés, deep lunges, severe side-tilts of her torso. Occasionally, Nicole Mannarino, the Spirit of Religion, appears behind her, whirling rapidly.

This rigor, a Michelson hallmark, carries over into a marathon solo for 14-year-old Non Griffiths (Mary), which evolves into a cold duet with the actor James Tyson, as Jesus. (Tyson and Jim Fletcher, who plays Adam, are both members of the Players, and do an admirable job of tackling the movement.) Griffiths, dressed in white, may be tiny, but she meets Philip Glass’s exultant Dance IX head-on. The score is not the only element invoking In the Upper Room; some of the steps, and the costumes by James Kidd, Shaina Mote, and Michelson, also recall that Twyla Tharp opus. Spliced with original music by Pete Drungle, Glass’s pulsating horns fuel the cyclical motifs, the transfixing repetitiveness, of the choreography. The integral lighting design, by Michelson and Zack Tinkelman, also plays a rhythmic role, as one of the hanging fixtures swings into motion, keeping time like a pendulum.

Warner and Griffiths give intrepid performances. But it’s Eleanor Hullihan (Eve) who seems like Devotion’s true heroine. If Griffiths is an emblem of purity, Hullihan is her sensuous counterpart, the abandon to her containment. In her duet with Fletcher, she exudes athletic vitality and feminine strength. (The two wear matching uniforms of red leotards with white bottoms.) A hopeful glint in her eye, she repeatedly bounds across the length of the space, diving into Fletcher’s arms or onto his shoulders. She takes his hand and pulls him toward the theater doors, a threshold that he is reluctant to cross.


 “Children. Have to tell you this message . . . We can live, free, without anxiety.” This refrain from Maxwell’s text echoes in the mind long after Devotion ends. Michelson takes us to many places, but among them, those extremes of freedom and angst, penetrating the rapturous depths of them both.

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