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Sarah Michelson's - 'Dogs'

BAM New Wave Festival 2006

by Juliet Neidish

October 21, 2006 -- Harvey Theatre, Brooklyn, New York

The New York press has been generously following Sarah Michelson’s rise through the ranks of modern dance.  Her work has been presented by an impressive list of venues both in the United States and Europe.  For its 2006 Next Wave Festival, the illustrious Brooklyn Academy of Music invited her to make a piece for its Harvey Theater.  Based on that premiere, entitled “Dogs,” it is my impression that Michelson’s skills are better suited to designing theatrical space than towards crafting performance.

      “Dogs” was made with the support of a large budget that enabled her to elaborately decorate and light the stage using lavish production values. She presented strong female dancers with whom she collaborates, and honed a signature movement motif which she and four of the dancers fully embodied.  Nevertheless, the piece lacked content and dynamics.  Whatever ideas she may have had while making this piece were so unclear, undeveloped, or vapid that I cannot even begin to take a stab at guessing what they were. 

    The stage looked like the living room from a page out of House Beautiful.  The floor was painted in an eye-catching black and white pattern.  Two lighting trees holding multiple lamps posed as metallic sculpture, designed with a Danish modern sleekness.  A multi-bulb, rectangular spotlight moved up and down and turned on and off upon command.  For short intervals, large stencil-like decorations either of trees or over-sized cat faces lit up on stage right.  Paradoxically, despite the title, only cats appeared as décor.  Later, however, there was a verbal reference to dog meat during the talking section of the piece.  A long, white, latticed patio table resided on stage.  It was used briefly in the first half of the piece when a dancer, who had stopped dancing, took three or four bites from the plate of roast chickens which was displayed upon the table.  During the second half, the table became the center of the non-dancing action around which three dancers ate and spoke, whined, or questioned each other in specific yet meaningless syntax.

    The piece opened with Parker Lutz dancing alone in the signature motif of this piece, which consisted of lyrically connected yet percussively etched Cunningham-esque combinations, danced barefoot and for the most part, on a high, forced-arch.  Lutz owned this style.  Her performance, including some daring balances à la seconde, was unhesitating and confident.  However, the choreography was so full of repetition and redundant variation, as well as so lacking in dynamics, that it quickly became tiresome.   Appearing as a duet, Michelson and Jennifer Howard had a number of entrances.  They too danced on forced-arch, with technical conviction, conveying a bit of vixen-like attitude that contrasted with the more nostalgic isolation of Lutz.  There was no connection between the single dancer and the duo, let alone a theatrical reason for anyone to be dancing in this possibly award-winning set.

     For me, the biggest problem with the piece began early on when the opening music switched from a composition for guitar to the fully orchestrated ballet music of Leo Delibes.  Indeed, the majority of the first half of this one hour and twenty minute piece was danced to selections from the 19th-century full-length story ballets that were set to the scores Delibes composed.  Michelson’s choreography made absolutely no reference – be it parody, quotation, nor even a sly wink – to the fact that generations of dancers and spectators have had specific associations with this music, a genre in itself programmatic.  Not only was there no acknowledgment of the use of this music in the history of dance, there was also no choreographic connection to this particular music as opposed to any other kind of music.  The choreography remained the same whether it was danced to solo guitar, orchestrated canonic ballet music, or sound effects such as rain.  It could have been very interesting to explore how a particular movement style works when done to different musical genres, but the choreographer would have to frame that for an audience to see.  Michelson did not choose to do that.  She did not even cite Delibes in the program although the composer of the original music as well as the sound designer had both been named.  Is this naiveté or sadly a historical vacuum within Michelson’s choreography?

    The second half introduced dancers Alice Downing and Laura Weston, who performed an earthier version of the earlier signature style, and also had them making fuller use of the space since the stage was cleared of props save for the table now upstage.  This dancing section followed an ultimately useless post-intermission opening during which thick stage smoke clouded the stage and then filtered into the intimate house, causing audience members to cough and squirm.  Nothing but smoke could be seen except for an occasional flutter of a dancer doing something barely visible.  When the smoke dissipated, we could finally see the two new female dancers followed by a contrasting angular and airy male dancer (Greg Zuccolo).  Without the earthiness and flesh of the women’s bodies, the strength of the movement style particular to this piece lost its power.  

    The shorter second half of “Dogs” ended with a segment of the earlier mentioned dinner banter.  It was well miked and clearly enunciated by the three dancers, but was neither interesting nor provocative and lacked connection to anything preceding it.  If Michelson thought she was engaging in the absurd, I would suggest she immerse herself in quintessential theater of the absurd, as found in the plays of Ionesco, Beckett, or Albee, and then make another stab at it.

    It is possible that Michelson’s use of Delibes, as well as her dialogue section, were both unsuccessful because of weak theatrical crafting.  Her prime focus seemed to be on the effect garnered from stage décor and lighting.  According to the large body of media coverage on Michelson, she has a reputation for “transforming” her spaces.  However, the ability to transform a space has a great deal less value in performance when there is little happening inside that space.         

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