Sarah Michelson’s 4

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At the Whitney Museum of American Art. Contemporary dance, like so much contemporary art these days, rather defies definition. The one comment I can make about choreographer Sarah Michelson is that she embraces collaboration with a vengeance. The unusual piece titled “4” could have been more audience-friendly if some of the artist’s vision had been in the program. Instead, Michelson dedicated one entire page to thanking people who I presume were instrumental in the creation and staging of the Devotion Series. Her program bio says “Sarah Michelson would like to name some of the artists among whom she works” followed by 59 names and the closing statement “This is not a complete list.”

I am a strong advocate of having performing art and visual art cohabit spaces and I was glad to see this piece in a gallery space. I also applaud experimentation. However, I wouldn’t call the performance dance. Perhaps movement would be a better description? The six artists spent much of the 90 minutes jumping up and down in place, or in yoga-esk moving poses, or running at full speed from point A to point B, or in gymnastic moves, or walking around the perimeter of the wall. Generally, they ignored each other. Their manner of entering, exiting and occupying the performance space did reference the ground-breaking 1950s work of Merce Cunningham, as did the simple pastel leotards.

There is also an extraordinary Chinese genre called gymnastic ballet, synchronized movement by several ballet dancers. But, neither Cunningham nor the Chinese hybrid seemed a good fit to assist with description. Michelson’s work lacked both the evidence of classical ballet training and the graceful movement that Cunningham’s dancers and the odd Chinese performance brought to bear. (The dancers were in fact formally trained, so this statement must refer to the intent of Michelson.)

Rather than a dance performance, “4” was like sitting on the sideline watching a sort of athletic training workout. The piece also included an occasional sound track, a conversation between the choreographer and another person, unrelated to what we were watching. A digital display of changing numbers was also part of the piece. These seemed important to the performers from time to time.

Of course, maybe I’m just too old school! This 90 minutes did encourage me to revisit some amazing dance video, and to think about where dance has been and is going. Maybe that is exactly the point Sarah Michelson is trying to make.

Barbara Motley

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