The Theater of Fuck You

By Leigh Witchel

Nothing Sarah Michelson does is accidental. Especially when she’s raking you over the coals.

Michelson, one of the most unique voices in performance art, is also one of the most uncompromising. Her series of works on the American dancer was thrilling and exasperating. She had billed “October 2017/\” as the start of a new body of work. I’d never miss one of her pieces. I’d also sometimes rather stick needles in my eyes than watch them.

Michelson billed the start time as 6:30 pm. Inconvenient enough – and pointless as the piece was only an hour. But those in line at 6:15 got a clear view of Michelson starting the performance.

As we were escorted in and assigned a seat, Michelson, in a loose dark top, a mop of brown curls, Converse sneakers and Mom jeans, was honking a horn and blowing a whistle loudly. Her speaking mixed with the ambient noise of shouting, screeching and words you couldn’t make out until they had been repeated forty or fifty times.

“Hello, hello . . . Professionalism goodbye. Kiss my ass. And I mean it in a nice way.”

If you didn’t know what you were in for, that was your final warning.

What followed was an hour of cacophony, screaming, and acting out as Michelson channeled her inner artfucker and waited to see who fell for it.

The miked sound was earsplitting. Michelson designed the seating for her “4” and I assume she did here as well. (I assume. There was no program). People were seated on seats, benches, steps and a variety of items, all cutting through the performing space.

Ordinary events were carefully planned. Or maybe they weren’t. Michelson’s phone beeped several times during the performance, she checked it and turned it off, “Shut up.” Later on, Michelson set a toy robot dancing on the floor, which immediately spilled over. Someone felt guilty and righted it, it immediately fell over again, but two other identical ones didn’t.

Two young women were involved. One arrived in the middle and poked her head through a door for a few minutes. Michelson dismissed her with a “goodbye.” Another man was barely visible, but there, it seemed, for his ability to make a very loud whistle. The other woman, called Bunny by Michelson, got the lion’s share of the time in a strange mentoring relationship played out in front of us. Bunny entered, stripped off her jacket and stood on a platform. She screamed in a girlish voice, “BACK UP!” Michelson coached her to scream and scream louder. There was no berating, only coaxing: “Prove it.” “Stay cool, Bunny,” as she screamed again and again.

A stable robot that remained on balance.

Michelson touched Bunny with rubber mallets as if testing her nerve reactions, fanned her with a large board, circled a plastic tube to make a low hollow whistling noise, and started a toy robot moving. She touched the girl’s stomach as she bent in a deep second position and rose up on the balls of her feet.

Was this a Svengali relationship? In her memorable 2011 work “Devotion,” Michelson coaxed an incredible, exhausting performance out of a 14 year old. She seems to pick people who will do whatever she asks – like slam into walls or do triplets for 90 minutes. Yet Michelson, and almost every dancer, knows the monastic thrill of submitting to a greater force: the possibility of breaking apart your own limitations. The cost of artistry for and with Michelson was her creepy use of authority. But if it was creepy, it was also transparent.

It quickly became clear that the seating was also arranged so that no one could get a clear, unimpeded view, especially as Michelson left the main space several times to go into the lobby or even the street. If you were cynical, though, given the simple things Michelson was doing in full view, you could easily extrapolate what she was doing where you couldn’t see her. Did you really need to get up to see her leaning against a door, yammering and banging her hand on her chest?

Zack Tinkelman has designed brilliant lighting for Michelson several times, and he did again. This time he used large simple lights like clip lamps with huge metal shades. Many had wooden strikers so they played like gamelan music when Michelson operated a pulley system.

Towards the end, the room went pitch dark, and Tinkelman’s lamps glowed like a planetarium. Michelson went into the street through open doors. People went out to follow her, and someone almost tripped. It made you wonder whether The Kitchen’s attorneys were consulted about that stunt and the size of the theater’s liability policy.

When the lights went back on, a young woman who had been in the audience made a plea for money for a companion with leukemia, but who could be sure if this was a real plea or a weird Milgram experiment – or even if the performance had actually ended. In some ways it hadn’t. Even a week later, Michelson had not approved the release of photographs for this article, or provided a cast list. We hope you like the stock images of a fluffy bunny and a robot.

Michelson was always a demanding performer, but “October 2017/\” was the first where the Andy Kaufman-esque shenanigans, no matter how shrewd, felt more like audience-baiting than performance. “At this point she’s just trolling us,” my companion whispered towards the end.

What makes Michelson compelling is also what makes her creepy and selfish: her intelligence and obsessive attention to every detail of the experience and the product. Even had there been an accident, we would have thought it was scripted. There were no accidents here. But Michelson’s obsessiveness has led in her previous shows to ecstatic images: ordinary people or teenagers in “Devotion” being turned into dancers with the endurance of marathon runners. Tinkelman’s lighting created indelible effects, “Devotion” had paintings and stage images that recalled Flemish masters. “October 2017/\” left out the ecstasy and added a second helping of control freak. Michelson’s done more in the past with less Fuck You.

Copyright ©2017 by Leigh Witchel

“October 2017/\” – Sarah Michelson
The Kitchen, New York, NY
October 18, 2017

Cover: A cute fluffy bunny.

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