As shore to her ocean: Sarah Michelson’s dancers

There is an anecdote about the tragic poet Phrynichus, wherein the playwright was made a general by the Athenians based on the choreography of a dance routine in one of his plays. Here is the story as preserved in Aelian’s Various Histories (3.8):

The Athenians made Phrynichus general, not out of favor, nor for nobleness of his birth, or for being rich (for which men are commonly esteemed at Athens, and preferred above others), but he having in a certain tragedy composed verses suitable to armed dancers, did win so much upon the theater, and please the spectators, that they immediately chose him general; believing that he would behave himself excellently and advantageously in martial affairs, who had in a play composed verses and songs so proper for armed men.

When I read this story, I could not help think of these ‘armed dancers’. Was it really the work of the poet that transformed them into soldiers, and, as a result, making him into a general? Or were these men somehow already soldiers, who, for Pyrynichus, had turned themselves into dancers?

I had Phyrnichus’ soldier dancers in mind when I recently read the following passage of Claudia La Rocca’s epistolary essay ‘Dear Sarah, Dear Ralph’, about the work of Sarah Michelson and Ralph Lemon, included in the On Value book that I keep returning to. La Rocca, responding to the performance On Devotion Study #3 and Devotion Study #4, the experience of sharing an artist and work between institutions, at Studio Five, New York City Center on May 14th, 2014, (in the recent book about Michelson’s work, this performance is listed as Value Talk #6), makes a point of addressing the dancers in the Michelson’s work, in reaction to the choreographer’s inaccessibility.

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 [Mannarino] and Rachel [Berman], 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.

This image of the dancers as blades reminded me of Phyrnichus’ armed dancers, especially for the transience of their lives as much as their roles in the performance. Later in the essay, La Rocco returns to the dancer and their body in terms of the debate central to Lemon’s Value Talks – the role of the institution in valuing ephemeral artworks:

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.

La Rocco then muses on the title of Michelson’s performance (Devotion) via a poem of the same name by Robert Frost:

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

The critic/poet, poet-critic La Rocca continues:

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 the shore to her ocean. (Or is it the other way around? No, I don’t think so.)

This parenthesis is revealing in compounding La Rocca’s commitment to the dancer. And I must admit that I am slowly starting to share this view, thanks to exchanges with performers I have spoken to in Tino Sehgal’s This Variation and Mattin’s Social Dissonance. It is vital to sustain the lives of performers, dancers, actors, interpreters, as much as the works they participate in, now more than ever. They are at the front line of issues of sustainability and value in contemporary art, putting their bodies in the line of fire, day after day.


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