Rule one: Never read what Sarah Michelson says about her work. Skip right past that interview in the paper, throw out the company’s “artistic statement,” ignore the remarks on the postcard announcing the show, and if somebody shoves a quote in front of you—for instance, “It creates practical and ethereal space by rigorously denying answers to questions and perversely redirecting form with and within its own logic”—try to keep your eyes shut. Rule two: Go see the work. Whatever it is and whatever she calls it, just go.
Michelson staged her latest piece, Shadowmann, in sections: The first part ran for a couple of weeks at the Kitchen, and the second has just closed at P.S. 122. Maybe this setup started as a gimmick, but the spaces are so spectacularly different and she is such a site-driven choreographer that there was plenty of imaginative room for each part to comment on the other. At the Kitchen, she tossed out the usual seating area and put rows of chairs at the far end of the space instead. So the stage was the entire theater, stretching from the front row all the way across to the lobby doors. Dancing happened everywhere, even overhead in a technician’s glassed-in booth, often with a jittery intensity that turned the simplest movement phrases into gibberish.
At P.S. 122, the scene shrank to a deliberately claustrophobic little performing space, with chairs on two sides, a thick white rug covering the entire floor, and the walls hung with chintz. Home sweet home—but as we took our seats, two dancers were lying face down on the carpet and two more were standing by with blank faces, murmuring almost unintelligibly in German.
Michelson doesn’t lack for ideas; she’s packed Shadowmann with enough provocative imagery to fill any six dance concerts in town. Five young girls were off in a corner during part one, dressed in white and gently wriggling, marching, and pointing like a backup ensemble from heaven—the Supremes, literally. The other dancers were encased in expressionless privacy until part two, when a sense of ensemble lurched into view. There was a quartet waving arms and legs slowly, like a single organism, and a couple who sat on the floor and breathed together, loudly and mechanically, as if they were each other’s life support.
But how she does love repetition—Philip Glass must have been one of the angels at Michelson’s christening. Two women did concentrated bumps and grinds, bumps and grinds, bumps and grinds. Dancers streaked across the space, raced back to their starting places, and streaked again. And again. And again. Women rose on one leg, sank, and rose. And sank and rose and sank and rose. It was mesmerizing, but it was also a little like happy hour at the obsessive-compulsive-disorder support group.
What was it all about? Something creepy, something humane, and finally something transcendent. Perhaps the most arresting imagery in Shadowmann was the outdoors, wondrously revealed on several occasions. At the Kitchen, the lobby doors opened in mid-performance and suddenly we were looking straight through the building and into the street. A truck drove by! Many choreographers talk about breaking down the boundaries between performance and real life, but you rarely see 19th Street making a cameo appearance. At P.S. 122, a chintz curtain was pulled back to reveal a fire escape, where later in the piece one of the young girls—now dressed like pre-Raphaelite spirits in blue gauze with masses of ringlets—could be seen dancing. In our last glimpse of the other dancers, they were out on the sidewalk themselves.
And before we ourselves left the theater, Michelson made an offering. Earlier in part two, one of the gauzy blue spirits passed a tray of cheese and crackers to the dancers, who all partook. Then, at the end of the dance, the tray was silently offered to the audience. After it came cups of water and what looked like wine. (Or maybe it was Kool-Aid, but that tray didn’t get as far as me.) Communion isn’t easy to achieve for any choreographer, in any movement language, but Michelson pulled it off beautifully. By the time we had shared her little supper and filed out, we could feel—if we wished toÂ—like members in good standing of the world she created.
I could have used more communion with the others in the audience, sitting through Boris Eifman’s new ballet at City Center recently: Every soul in the theater seemed captivated by this work but me. Who’s Who is a departure for Eifman, the artistic director of Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg and a choreographer best known for the grand psychological torment he lavishes on such characters as Tchaikovsky and Hamlet. This time he was aiming at a more lighthearted evening, and one drenched in American iconography. His starting point was Some Like It Hot, the classic Billy Wilder film about a couple of cross-dressing musicians on the run from Chicago gangsters in the twenties. Eifman made them Russian-immigrant ballet dancers, on the run from New York gangsters and hiding out among the showgirls in a nightclub revue. The music was mostly jazz, and the dancing mostly wasn’t, though Eifman cheerfully borrowed as much as he could carry off, especially from Bob Fosse.
But neither Eifman nor anybody else seemed to know what to do with the material. His choreography never settled on a convincing rendition of any American style except tawdry-nightclub, and the characterizations ricocheted from cartoonish to angst-ridden. In the climax, one of the immigrants gave a pair of ballet shoes to his beloved, the tawdriest of the American nightclub dancers, who staggered up on toe and soon was flying around happily. The moment she was reborn, the Russian made her the star of his new-style American ballet company. Okay, I get it. But how much more satisfying it would have been to see her teaching him a few good tap routines.