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Flash 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 of options.

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.

Surprisingly, "Daylight"'s 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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