Digital Project

Dear Sarah, Dear Ralph

Dear Sarah,

Dear Ralph,

I’m not sure yet if I’m writing to one or both of you, or neither.

I’m not sure yet what I’m writing.

Ralph, you told me that I had to respond to Sarah’s work not as a journalist, and not as a critic, but as an artist—this already doesn’t make sense to me, because these things are inextricably tangled in my head. Well, not so much “journalist” (I was never really a proper journalist, was I?), but “artist” and “critic”—criticism is art; it has to be, or at least it has to aspire to be, or, really, what’s the point? It’s not like I become a different person when I write a poem versus a review. But there is one thing I like about your request: Artists aren’t beholden to some mythological notion of truth. I can say anything I want in this space. I can lie, and it isn’t even lying.

And, Sarah, you haven’t told me much of anything. It’s an open question if this writing is something you desire, or are suffering, or are oblivious to. That seems fine. That seems to indicate that I am not writing to you. And so why am I addressing you at all? I’m not sure I have a good answer. Maybe I am writing to your work. But that’s different, as we all know, right?

Maybe I should be writing to the dancers. But what would I say to Nicole and Rachel, whom I do not know, not really, and who seem so young in this work, and yet so certain, cutting through space like freshly sharpened blades. When they grow dull, other blades will take their place. Martha Graham talked about how the body doesn’t lie. I never thought that was a halfway-interesting claim. Bodies lie all the time: in court, in bed, and of course onstage. A dancer once showed me a covert video he’d made during a performance by one of the major ballet companies. At first you see the upright, smiling, beautiful weightlessness of the show, the corps de ballet arranged in glittering, fast-moving formation. Then the camera pans backstage to reveal the women gliding off in their tutus and, as soon as they’re no longer visible to the audience, collapsing onto hands and knees, their torsos heaving, their breath coming hoarse and ragged like animals dying.

And but so. We all walked into a performance of a rehearsal at City Center Studio 5 on a muggy Tuesday evening in May, the “performance” indicated by the man in one corner wielding a stage light, sure, but really by the fourth wall between artists and audience. And it was so predictable and obvious and true to form that Sarah would do this: You want access? OK. Here. Watch this. But only from the perimeter, and unacknowledged. A spectacle of avoidance. I think I saw Rachel sneak a glance at her public. But Sarah didn’t turn her head once—the performance tell.

Detritus of clothes, water bottles, Dean & DeLuca coffee cups. A stack of plastic squares that I later realized were sleeves for the white cushions that serve as audience seating. And notes—notebooks and snippets of text placed, tantalizingly, just beyond reach. Sarah and her dancers are seated in the middle of the studio. Also snippets of speech, enough to get an almost sense:

“Do you feel like that has any potential?”

“I feel like we’ll go back to that tomorrow.”

“Better. Much better.”

I mean, my God, rehearsals can be boring. The dry rub of repetition, the stop and start, time going elastic and then slack. At least watching paint dry is a linear proposal. At least civilians can leave their work at the office. I can’t decide whether the amount of time that goes into making a dance is beautiful or abhorrent or both. Probably both.

This morning when I went into the Mark Morris Dance Center for physical therapy I saw Nicole warming up at the barre. When I came out, an hour or so later, Sarah was coming in. An hour of time, at least, for Nicole to warm up—or more, I suppose, as she looked like she had been at it for a little while before I arrived. What is the value of that daily practice, the worth? In this city, not very much. I don’t get the sense that museums are especially concerned with supporting dancers in terms that address this need for the body’s constant upkeep: paying for physical therapy, or class, or the time it takes to prepare for rehearsal, or insurance (workers’, health, etc.), or even a meaningful hourly wage. (The same goes for most theaters, and the ones that are interested typically aren’t in a financial position to do anything about it.)

Everyone talks about this in ethical terms: that we as a society should support those who work so hard for so little, and who give such great pleasure, at such great cost, with nary a safety net in sight. And of course, yes, it should be talked about in those terms. But for museums—for institutions that claim to be interested in housing and preserving performance within their collections—treating dancers as secondary to the works they perform just seems like bad business stacked on top of bad faith. The work doesn’t live anywhere if it doesn’t live in the people on whom it was wrought. The people who, as well, wrought it.

But who houses these mobile archives? If we are now post–company model, is there a collection model to slide into that vacuum? I have to admit, I’m not really interested in preserving dance. But I sure am interested in preserving dancers. Museums, should they so choose, could do it—hire dancers as employees to maintain the choreography in their collections, the way the big opera houses used to have in-house ballet troupes. But first, museums would have to see dancers as valuable in themselves, and not simply as valuable to the extent that they serve as temporary delivery systems—and by “valuable,” here, I think I mean to say that there is a way in which dancers, despite being the visible forms into and through which choreography flows, are somehow completely unseen.

But no. The bodies our presenting organizations value are the ones walking through their doors. In Sarah’s case, these bodies are a particular lot, the usual suspects from a cross section of contemporary dance and, increasingly, visual art. I don’t really think I’m interested in writing to them. It’s too much like writing to myself.

What were we waiting for that night, all of us perched on somewhat comfortable white cushions, craned forward, waiting for something to happen? What did we expect to find in that studio, having been invited to a facsimile of a rehearsal by a choreographer who is notorious for controlling access to her work? The other day someone showed me a bootleg recording of Sarah’s dance Shadowmann (2003). Watching it felt like eating candy filched from the local bodega.

That’s the interesting thing, one interesting thing, about these Value Talks of yours, Ralph—you are entirely controlling access, making this “thing” out of events that typically might not warrant so much attention; you’ve made them a desired object. (Here it is probably important to say that you have chosen not to charge admission for these events—we have only, only, to be on your list.) Do you believe in the narrative that we are now in a performance economy—one untethered from the industrial, from objects, and even from information? It sure sounds good. But the Performance with a capital p in this context is still just another object, something to collect.

Now when I think about Sarah’s rehearsal, I think of two prominent art-world figures snapping candids on their phones as though on art safari—I wanted to ask whether they also do that while in visual artists’ studios—and yet I had to resist doing the same thing myself. I kept thinking, This is probably the closest I ever will get to a Sarah Michelson rehearsal. Is there value to that? Why do I care?

Because of course I did care. The ego likes its access.

But it’s not just that, not just my ego. The other day a friend and I were having the never-ending conversation about why we bother living in New York, given all of the glaringly obvious reasons not to. My friend said for him it boils down to having a particular conversation with people whose brains work in a certain way—a conversation that matters, and that progresses at a certain speed. So, yes, clearly ego is still at play here, but so is the question of what it is to be alive in 2015. Is that too big a jump to make in this paragraph? Maybe I haven’t made it elegantly. But it seems to me that to be in conversation with Sarah’s work is to be in a conversation that matters. Why else agree to write this letter in the first place?

For some it matters too much; this letter will only be further proof of that. Given the amount of power Sarah now wields—I can see your face screwing up in at least mild objection at this point—it is of course inevitable that some people see the work as corrupted. People who ascribe to her the most influence, the most weight, who see the work itself as power drunk and hung up on (or subconsciously beholden to?) late-stage capitalistic agendas and values. The things she asks her dancers to do. (The things they volunteer to do?) Tendon and muscle and bone stretched and compressed in ways that seem both exalted and inhumane.

But there is something about the labor of Sarah’s dances, her punishing repetitions. This is where the action lives. The it-ness. I can see them still, Nicole and Rachel, at the ready, poised even in rest in that dingy, always-too-hot room at City Center, where everything would change if only there were windows.

“Where and how is ‘value’ embedded in her glorious obsessions?”

That’s a question you asked me, Ralph.

Maybe the only way I could answer is to tell you that it makes me want to write. The words start forming, moving, when her work takes shape in my imagination. A conversation that matters unfolds. (Why is that, and who decides, and is any of it actually important? I don’t know, Ralph. Maybe you can answer.)

You know that poem by Robert Frost? It’s called “Devotion” (of course):

The heart can think of no devotion
Greater than being shore to the ocean—
Holding the curve of one position,
Counting an endless repetition.

I don’t even like Robert Frost. But I think of this poem every time I think of Sarah’s Devotion series. The dancers as shore to her ocean. (Or is it the other way around? No, I don’t think so.) All the ways my thinking around that is deeply, romantically problematic. (You see? This is why people get creeped out by poet-critics: We get carried away.) And still, and yet.

The fine sheen of sweat on freckled shoulders. The hips swiveling. Big fourth-position lunge, pirouette out and back into it. Walk a circle. Fingers squiggling. Ominous and mystical thrum of music, then a pop song bursts forth; the squeal of rubber-soled dance boots on marley. The body in a crouch, hands flat, head bowed. Armpits darkening. Now face pressed to floor. “Trust it,” Sarah says. Who is she talking to? Sometimes I think the art world doesn’t know how to begin to see without spectacle.

This past summer, friends of mine were married in Vermont. I traveled across the country, leaving a residency early, feeling bereft—another relationship of mine was ending; again the weight of not being able to hold one position. The wedding was on a farm, and so we had been advised to wear shoes that would accommodate hay and mud and rolling hills. And do you know, Ralph: Sarah was there, sporting totally impractical heels and sunglasses that reflected a warped rainbow version of whomever she faced. How totally incongruous to see her, and yet—she is always somehow inevitable, is she not? We had a quick, desultory conversation, the sort you don’t register unless it fills a need. I talked about failure. She talked about making limits, which I (probably, in order to suit my purposes, mis-) remembered and wrote into a poem. A New England poem, but not, I hope, like Frost:

My other friend says it is sometimes ok to protect
If you know you are fragile it is ok to make limits
I cannot see her eyes past the reflective lenses of her sunglasses
Only every once in awhile a glimpse but mostly looking at myself green-redly

I think that in Sarah’s work there is also this protection, this show of extreme strength as a way to guard vulnerability. Think again of that rehearsal, all of the power brokers clustered around a daily activity made singular, made visible, and still kept just out of reach. If you know you are fragile, it is OK to make limits. To throw your weight around and around and around.

The dancer lies prone on the floor. Pounding comes from the studio above. Glad somebody’s having fun. Gorgeous low lunge. Sweat darkening the spine. Hands clasped behind back, elbows mostly straight. Phrases—no, only fragments of phrases, fragments of fragments, repeated and repeated and repeated again. When they pause to talk, their sentences typically begin with “I feel like …”

Legs corkscrewing.

We sit. We are very well behaved. Like cows in a cow pasture, placidly doing our cow thing. When it is over, really over, after one false ending (man, Sarah loves her false endings), those of us who have stuck it out will offer thank-yous, applause. We will feel like we got something. We will get something whether we feel it or not.