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Flash Flashback, 1-12: Unglaublich
Rat-faced Bastards in the Kitchen with Sarah Michelson

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2005 Chris Dohse

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(Editor's Note: To celebrate five years of being online, The Dance Insider is revisiting its Archives. This piece originally appeared on April 18, 2003.)

NEW YORK -- So this is the next big thing. A scruffy, loud, spectacular stunt. A scrawny rat-faced bastard of a dance that you want to take home and give a bath. A sense of things happening all around you but from your partial view you mostly see fellow audience members rubbernecking. A mock profundity, a sense of having your leg pulled. The same bemused, somewhat embarrassed faces as in that much-reproduced 1960 photo of an audience at an Yves Klein live-action painting.

In Sarah Michelson's "Shadowmann Part I" at the Kitchen, there's a sense of fun and exuberant plenitude in the composition, like in the happenings of Kaprow et al., but there's a dire humorlessness in the mien of the dancers.

Is this mimicry or redefinition? I can't tell. I can't identify a clear point of view. The music choices -- '70s ballad rock -- don't sound as funny to someone who lived through their heyday as they might to someone for whom they're retro-chic.

The lack of a unified focal point becomes monotonous. I long to be able to enter the action, to walk around it, as one would have done at a party on the roof of the Bauhaus.

What is the actual danced vocabulary? Instantly, I can't remember, even though it seems like maybe three phrases are being repeated to deadening extremity. Legs, steps, passe positions, one gesturing arm --mostly limply done, as if being marked. It's the spatial ingenuity and flat, flat affect that I'll remember.

A chorus of teenaged girls wears Dolce & Gabbana. The next day, looking through a copy of Rolling Stone in my ophthalmologist's office, I see a D&G ad. One of the models in it wears the same skeevy half-grown-in beard, the same Flock of Seagulls bangs and the same self-absorbed sneer that Greg Zuccolo wears throughout the piece.

So is Michelson endorsing this sleaze or mocking it? Or is it all just a coincidence? Would it matter if I knew the answer?

After some obligatory lip-synching, I'm torn between embarrassment over the hollow experience I'm having and envy because I haven't been offered a similar opportunity to wallow in alienating hauteur. Oh wait; maybe that's what criticism is. I just can't dig the idea that I spent $30 (I didn't actually, but the masses did) to have my nose rubbed in how uncool I am. To have flaunted style remind me of in-group/out-group bias. But Henry Baumgartner, in his role as overseer, thrills me.

Ever since R. Mutt (a.k.a. Marcel Duchamp) placed a urinal in an art exhibition, the idea that anything is art/nothing isn't art has been acknowledged and tinkered with to various levels of success. I guess I'd rather engage in some variation of this discourse than watch Law and Order reruns, even if it pisses me off. After making this distinction I grudgingly applaud the project's audacity.

A slide is projected somewhat haphazardly on a side wall: a smiling woman against a background of flowers. It could be the choreographer's mother or a found object. Either would be equally significant, equally inane.

"Shadowmann Part II" at PS 122 begins with gamin showgirl poses and whispered textbook German conversations, counted things. Why this layer of obfuscation? Only some of us will be able to understand the text. Why this pretense?

But I immediately warm to Part II's smaller scale. Especially the ecru shag carpet that covers the floor. I see the phrase material and its repetitions not as dance so much as behavior. The teenaged trio is here again, now huddled in a corner, dressed in blue gauze. Last week they looked aloof; now they're bored, with cherubic curls.

I could eat Paige Martin with a spoon. The flowers in the anonymous slide from Part I are reflected in the pattern of the floor-length curtains that hem two sides of the space. Greg's beard is thankfully gone but his moustache has taken on Marlboro Man proportions. Behind my head, three video monitors transmit identical flat anonymous landscapes.

Michelson occasionally utters the word, "unglaublich." Our awareness of us watching them becomes palpable, a third integer in an equation. The performers brazenly toy with their power; toy with being the object of what Schechner calls our "selective inattention." When the curtains are pulled open to reveal 9th Street, the audience becomes part of the show on a different level, available for watching by passersby.

Again, I won't remember the actual movement, only its framing devices. The bodies are static a lot, awaiting but not noticing each other's activities as they arise and fall away. It's a relief in some way to be freed from the falsehood of the "willing suspension of disbelief" of Aristotelian theater.

But just what is that pinched expression on Michelson's face? What is she feeling? Contempt or despair?

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