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Review 2, 6-28: The Queen of Concept
Scheme Sabotages Style in Michelson's "Daylight"
By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2005 Philip W. Sandstrom
NEW YORK -- For her
new "Daylight," Sarah Michelson radically reconfigured PS 122's
second-floor theater, effectively dropping a new performance space
in the midst of the old one. If you've performed in or observed
performances at this space, you know the stage is bisected by two
permanent columns; Michelson plopped the seating -- three custom-seating
risers -- adjacent to and in between these fixtures. Then she painted
everything -- including the walls -- white. The only exception to
this snowy landscape was Claude Wampler's four large portraits of
the dancers, delineated, etch-a-sketch style, in a continuous thin
black line on an all-white canvas. A phalanx of upright chrome theatrical
lights confronted the audience at the lip of the stage, mounted
on poles like speared heads. A gentle haze thinly filled the air
and the theater was bathed in natural blue-sky light pouring through
a large exposed window on the south side of the auditorium.
The show opened with
an explosion of live music, delivered by Howie Statland's band in
a smooth, hip, Las Vegas-like big band style complete with saxophone
and vocals, by Tony Brown. The band was playing its own rendition
of a familiar campy tune that sounded rich, full, and surprisingly
appropriate. The dancers burst onstage in white costumes, through
the upstage left set door, prancing like horses in a military parade.
What a tour de force! This opening section was overwhelming. With
the undulating lighting created onstage and by reflection in the
audience, by Joe Levasseur and Michelson, and the blue sky pouring
through the window, this all-white look was a perfect and complete
combination; a total-theater effect. My eyes were filled with tears
of happiness at the visual completeness of this production.
The choreography was
quintessential Michelson. Building on the strengths of Merce Cunningham,
Stephen Petronio, Lucinda Childs and others, she has created her
own distinctive style. If Michelson has borrowed ideas, she has
borrowed from the best and made them her own. The dancers, Parker
Lutz, Mike Iveson, Greg Zuccolo and the choreographer were intensely
engaged and engaging and obviously having fun.
Iveson's score continually
metamorphosed throughout the evening, from big band to wailing sax
to rap vocals with loops lifted from many of the popular genres
to Ventures-in-Space style synthetic keyboards, all interspersed
with atmospheric sounds or segues of silence. But despite this musical
shape shifting, which moved us along throughout the show, the choreography
started to lose its way about two-thirds of the way through the
concert. The vocabulary began to repeat itself in very regular and
predictable ways. So what happened? What forced this less than interesting
repetition of material? Perhaps it was pre-ordained; perhaps the
choreographer didn't have a choice. Perhaps, she simply ran out
In the physical layout
of this production, Michelson has mapped out a very wide yet extremely
shallow space in which to dance, forcing her to give up many spatial
options. She lost the potential to explore depth and was forced
to rely exclusively on lateral motion to explore spatial relationships.
In addition, this stage arrangement provided for little separation
between the audience and the performer or the performer and the
walls of the set. Consequently, the dance was forced into a single
plane of existence, thereby losing a valuable tool to vary composition.
Lacking the tools of depth and separation, Michelson has relied
upon dynamics and locale to differentiate one section or idea from
the next. Because of the aforementioned two built-in columns which
trisect the audience, the spectators were unable to smoothly pan
laterally as required by the continual lateral movement, so even
Michelson's locales were in reality limited to left, right, or center.
She was forced to rely on dynamics. To complicate matters even further,
the fence of vertical lighting poles or spears that lined the downstage
edge of the audience were within touching distance of the seated
first row viewers. While the lighting poles provided a powerful
visual and physical effect when lit up, they partially obscured
the precision footwork that is an important dynamic and signature
of the Michelson style. The performers' feet could only be viewed
with great difficulty, in and around the lighting poles. If all
of this wasn't enough of a problem, because of the shallow rake
of the custom-seating platforms, even those seated behind the first
row were prevented from catching even a fleeting glimpse of any
of that fabulous footwork. Michelson was fighting a losing battle
against a handicap of her own devising.
support elements fared much better than the dance. The music soared
with an urgency that only a live band can provide. The atmospheric
elements of costumes, sets, stage lights, sunlight, and haze provided
an unexcelled environment that saw no limitations.
In her 2003 "Shadowmann Part I," seen at the Kitchen, Michelson
provided vast landscapes that helped the viewer to more completely
appreciate her precise choreography. In "Shadowmann Part II," presented at PS 122's smaller
downstairs theater, the audience, though crammed into a small space,
was given an up-close and personal look at the Michelson performance
technique and the dancer's precise execution. So why in "Daylight"
are we forced to suffer from not enough visibility of a technique
that is screaming to be seen? Why such limiting choices? Did the
choreographer become so beholden to the concept that she marched
forward in spite of the obvious barriers? The answer seems obvious.
The complete show, total-theater
concept, as dazzling as it was on a visceral level, robbed the audience
of the opportunity to view all of the fruits of Michelson's efforts
and the dancers' indefatigable labors. And, by limiting her tools
and our visibility Michelson literally boxed herself into a choreographic
corner and did herself and her dancers a disservice.
But I don't think that
"Daylight" is finished; I think Michelson will have much more to
say. She will return with either a more comprehensive version or
add a "Night" addition, the next time around. Either way I think
the work will re-surface as a more complete version with questions
answered and concepts refined and adjusted to more perfectly serve
the vision. The proof of this is in the coda. Near the end of the
show, and following the exit of the entire company, there was an
uncomfortable pause during which there were no bows and there was
no hint of more to come (programs were withheld until after the
show). Some members of the audience started to exit but were quickly
frozen mid-aisle by the sudden appearance of dancer Lindsey Fisher,
in a black costume, accompanied by Howie Statland, performing his
music, in an unadvertised second and final work for the evening.
By this point the audience was so confused about coming and going
that focusing on Fisher became an exercise lost within a whirlwind
of chaos. But it was clear that more is happening here, and that
more will happen. Michelson has unfinished ideas that merit and
will receive further exploration.
In its current edition,
"Daylight" is a case study of concept, merit versus function. Concepts,
while important and laudable, should not be set in stone. Flexibility
is the mother of innovative production.
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