WHAT BECOMES A GIMMICK MOST? For that matter, what becomes a gimmick? This is the sort of question that vexes the choreographer Sarah Michelson. Was it a gimmick to serve rotisserie chicken during intermission in Dogs, 2006? To include the white limousine "getaway car" at the end of Shadowmann: Part 1, 2003? What about her persistent use of little girls? Or the cheap, cartoonish horse-head masks in her latest dance, Dover Beach, an early version of which debuted last September at Chapter in Cardiff, Wales, and which will have its stateside premiere this June at the Kitchen? (Speaking to this last example, Michelson offers that at least the horse heads are "gimmicky.")
It may or may not have been a gimmick for Michelson to commission for her 2005 piece Daylight (for Minneapolis) at the Walker Art Center fifty painted portraits of her curator, Philip Bither, one of each of her dancers, and one each, too, of Kathy Halbreich and Richard Flood, then director and deputy director of the institution. And it may have been a joke on the ritual mythologization of the performer or a fetishistic homage to it (the difference is not always clear) when Michelson installed these portraits as set pieces throughout the museum and its theater for the dance. That this cocksure act shadowed a concurrent Chuck Close exhibition in the Walker's galleries did not go unnoticed by Michelson, who ate up the irony of such a juxtaposition. "A gimmick is anything that's in there that I enjoy a little too much," she admits.
"Attitude sells," Joan Acocella wrote of such provocations in 2005, capping off a cranky (if generally positive), now-notorious New Yorker piece on four darlings of Manhattan's "downtown" dance scene. The august balletomane was referring specifically to Michelson, who was then becoming something of a cause celebre in the dance world and beyond for her unusual style, transformative sets, and tendency to talk to the press about rent trouble and personal injuries. In the same article, Acocella glibly dubbed Michelson and the others (Tere O'Connor, Christopher Williams, and Lucy Guerin) "surrealists" for their "irrational," anti-narrative impulses and ambiguous sound tracks and gestures.
There is indeed a dreamlike logic to Michelson's dances, if also a peculiarly dialectical one that hovers between the deliberate and the arbitrary, between the recondite and the free-associative. Each element is finely tuned to a specific, sophisticated audience; she prefers the elaborate logic of the inside joke to the banal logic of spectacle, often demanding more of her spectators than they can possibly give. Michelson is an unusual figure, one who finds affinities with both Christopher Wheeldon and Yvonne Meier, both Twyla Tharp and (early) Yvonne Rainer; she is outside, but not necessarily antagonistic to, the generic lineages of ballet, modern, and "postmodern" dance, and in this way she is representative of a field of contemporary choreographers whose activity has most densely accumulated around small, vanguard New York institutions. Her movements can evoke different styles, but she fervently repudiates pastiche. She nests old dances within new dances like matryoshka dolls, employs unusual repetitions, and designs gestures whose principal aim is to make the dancer work. Actions become contagious: A man on a balcony scooping with his arm can infect a mass of dancers below, who will anxiously repeat the motion before collapsing or breaking into sprints. Does all this make her a surrealist? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. Either way, such an appellation surely obscures as much as it reveals. With Michelson, it might be more legitimate to say that attitude doesn't simply sell--it becomes form.
IN 2006, JAMES TYSON, the theater programmer at Chapter in Cardiff, Wales, invited me to make a piece there. I hadn't been back to the UK in a while, and I wanted to be nearer to my granny; he said I could do anything, so I agreed to it. …