The Freedom and Unholiness of Sarah Michelson's Devotion
Sarah Michelson at On the Boards
Closed March 13
Sarah Michelson's Devotion is a huge thing. It involves dance by adult dancers (most awesomely, Eleanor Hullihan), an actor (Jim Fletcher, who last appeared in Gatz), and a preternaturally gifted 14-year-old dancer (Non Griffiths); scripted overhead narration by experimental playwright Richard Maxwell; a stripped-down set that looks like a cross between a boiler room and a ballet studio but also includes kitschy realist oil paintings and giant clumps of lights made to swing back and forth by a dancer performing a masturbatory motion with a rope; and subjects including the biblical origin of the world and living things, the sudden death of a family member, everyday observations, athletics, penitence, and backward motion. It borrows from one other famous work of dance very directly. It is a lot to take in, and it was here for only a single weekend.
Michelson's last appearance at On the Boards was 2005's Daylight, which involved dancers roaming the building and audience members refusing to stay in their seats but instead following the dancers, which reportedly caused Michelson to call Seattleites "a bunch of fucking hippies."
It's not always clear what Michelson wants, but the installation-like presentation of her works (I caught Daylight, and obediently sat in my seat, which I regret) hits viscerally (as, here, does the feeling that she's using up every bit of energy in every muscle in these dancers' bodies), while the whole of her enterprise aims to exercise a certain artistic freedom and unholiness that I can't help but admire. Take her appropriation, in Devotion, of Twyla Tharp's 1980s piece In the Upper Room (last seen at Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2007). The theft is gleefully blatant—strikingly similar costumes, Tharpian leaping and jumping, and the same music, Philip Glass's Dance IX. She repeats the already repetitive music three times, raising the level of replication to the nth degree, but unlike in Tharp's work, Michelson's movements are just as much like mindless labor as like theatrical performance. "We'll be ourselves, plain and true," the narrator says to close the piece. That's complicated to pull off.
This article has been updated since its original publication.