Originally published in Movement Research Performance Journal issue #56, summer 2022.
In an interview filmed in 2011, Philip Bither asks choreographer Sarah Michelson why she chose the title Devotion for her latest work. “Devotion” in relation to a higher spiritual being? “Devotion” of the performers to her choreographic vision? “Devotion” of admirers of Sarah’s work? Sarah’s response is earnest, even reverent: “We spend our lives and our beings and our money and our…everything — hours and hours and hours in the studio…it’s our lives, and, not to sound hokey, but it’s spiritual…” She continues, “This sounds so hokey and completely humiliating, but in the life of Merce Cunningham, or in the life of Pina Bausch, their complete focus on this illusive form… At certain points in my life I keep realizing, oh right, I’m thirty-five. Oh, I’m forty. Oh, I’m forty-five. And here I am.” Devotion to dance is part of the legacy left by choreographers such a Merce and Pina — each of whom passed away in 2009 — and inherited by dancers and choreographers making work in the wake of the specific dance history they have come to represent.
When I first saw the video of this interview, “devotion to dance” struck me as a beautifully abstract idea. I was a young and eager dancer, fresh out of college. While I loved dance, devotion did not characterize my relationship to the practice. Only in the years of work that followed did my devotion grow, taking form as a distinction between believing that dance matters, that it is important, and embodying an unwavering commitment, a nearly unconditional — and as Sarah’s quote suggests, almost unconscious — showing-up for dance. At its peak, my devotion took on a religious tenor. I lived life in the service of dance. It was exhilarating, clarifying, and purpose-driven — alleviating the existential dread of my mid-twenties. While other friends dabbled in different ventures, I had a clear sense of my life’s meaningfulness. Since then, however, my devotion to dance has waned, taking with it my passion for performing altogether. I’m left wondering: what happened?
Later on in his interview with Sarah, Philip returns to the question of devotion. He begins, “Most of the people I know who have performed in your work are, for lack of a better term, really devoted to your aesthetic and your vision. Is it difficult, the balance between the kind of toughness you have to play as a director and choreographer and maintaining allegiance from your people?” I hear Philip’s question as a backdoor way of asking if devotion indeed characterizes the relationship between Sarah and the dancers she works with. The query subtly sets up a distinction within the interview between the devotion of the choreographer — Sarah, Merce, Pina — and that of the dancer. If the choreographer is devoted to dance, is the dancer devoted to the choreographer? This binary is false — Sarah, Merce, and Pina are and were incredible dancers in their own right — but the question is still useful in helping me understand what happened to my devotion to dance.
I went to the audition more out of curiosity about the artist than because I was sure I wanted the job. At that point, I had only seen one of Sarah’s pieces, and as an audience member had felt alienated by the dancing. I didn’t get the reference, embedded in the work, to Sarah’s personal experience of Northern Soul.
Devotion Study #3 (2012) was performed at MoMA as part of “Some Sweet Day…” — a program co-organized by Ralph Lemon and Jenny Schlenzka. It was early November, days after Hurricane Sandy hit New York. I was twenty-three and chasing a job with the Trisha Brown Dance Company at the time. What had begun as a two-day audition in December 2011 had evolved into a year-long saga of attending workshops under Diane Madden’s watchful eye and occasionally joining company rehearsals. Immersed as I was in Brown’s postmodernism, the movement of Sarah’s piece seemed like a foreign language. At MoMA, a single dancer dressed in blue wearing white converse sneakers moved about museum’s atrium by pivoting between her heels and toes, her arms held behind her back with her head bowed down, her eyes focused on the ground in front of her. Occasionally she let out a shriek or abruptly interrupted her heel-toe dance to spin on one foot or lunge across the floor — then back to heels, toes, gaze down. All the while, Sarah, although I didn’t recognize her at first, stood on the sidelines DJing soul music and cooing gentle directives to the dancer. The work felt like a perversion of social dance, but to what end? It struck me as a litmus test for taste — a means of distinguishing artworld insiders from outsiders.
I went to the audition on February 3, 2013. By that time, I had finally been cut from the Trisha Brown process. Exhausted from the cycle of looking for dance work from auditions, I was newly intent on making my own work, on creating for myself the opportunities I wasn’t getting from others. Perhaps, I thought, exposure to Sarah’s creative process would fuel my own artistic work. It was clear from the communication we received before the audition that some of her methods were idiosyncratic. She had asked us to each bring our own masking tape and Sharpie for a name tag — an odd but laudable attempt to avoid simply replacing our names with numbers, as often happens at auditions. She also asked us to bring socks and jazz shoes, but to wear the socks over the jazz shoes. This was a first.
In the cavernous New York City Center studio, the same dancer-in-blue from MoMA introduced herself as Nicole and began teaching us, a group of roughly fifty dancers, the steps I had seen her perform a few months earlier. The moves seemed innocuous. A step of pivoting between heels and toes and occasionally extending one foot out along the floor, diagonally across the body, was called “the basic.” We learned a few turns, some of which struck me as ironic: a spin on one foot with each of her arms arcing around the front and back of the body in the same direction of the turn, as if to indicate, hyperbolically, “this is me turning.”
As Nicole taught us more of these discrete steps — a lunge, a box step, a lateral slide, each meticulously codified with notes about where to place our intention — she emphasized the autonomy of every move. We were to complete each step entirely before executing another, so that no two moves blended together. In principle, each autonomous action could then emerge from within us spontaneously and in any order, as if our feet had a mind of their own. We were learning an alphabet, not a set of phrases. The practice struck me as a form of improvisation I hadn’t encountered before — one concerned less with making “interesting” decisions than with trusting that, through muscle memory and listening to the feet, the moves would take care of themselves. The rubric of success was the integrity of the task, not composition. This was exactly the kind of engrossing creative research I had come for.
As the audition wore on, fascination yielded to pain. After having spent the previous year training my body in the Brownian style of initiating movement from shifts of weight, often quite subtly, the self-contained actions Sarah asked of us felt like nearly the opposite. Executing them correctly was a matter of consciously delimiting the end points of actions, of inhibiting any spill, flow, or excess that wanted to further compel my body. They demanded an asceticism I wasn’t used to. It was a brutal experience of reattuning movement, shutting down the release and ripple that I had spent a year trying to perfect until it had become almost naturalized. After one exercise of endlessly repeating the same step — reaching one foot diagonally along the floor, as far from the pelvis as it would go, before abruptly shifting your full weight onto that extended leg, then repeating on the other side, traveling in a zig-zag pattern across the floor (hands behind the back, gaze down toward the floor) — my thighs began screaming at me.
To my own surprise, by the end of the day, I was still in the room. Sarah had narrowed the pool down to about twenty of us. She wanted to begin working with the full group but warned that she didn’t really know what she was looking for — she was preparing for a show that would happen a year later but it was possible that, in the end, she would decide to continue working only with Nicole. In any case, rehearsals would begin immediately so she needed to know about any conflicts we had, “between tomorrow and, well, a year from now.” Excuse me? While I was now quite curious about Sarah’s creative process, I was not prepared to commit a year of my life on the spot. I had come looking for creative inspiration more than for a job. We went in a circle, stating our conflicts. When my turn came, I was honest: “I’m available through April, then I’m doing a project in May, and after that I’m not sure.”
“What do you mean you’re not sure?”
“I’m not sure if, after April, I will want to commit to this for a year. If that doesn’t work for you, I totally respect that.”
“I don’t think that’s going to work, but thank you for coming.” Big smile, ear to ear.
I left City Center and got on the train to Brooklyn, surprised by what had come out of my mouth. Yes, the movement felt awful on my body, but this was the first time in the year-and-a-half that I had lived in New York that I had made it to the end of an audition for a long-term project by an acclaimed choreographer with a regular rehearsal schedule. Even if I had recently set my sights on making my own work instead of dancing for others, on paper this was still a dream come true.
As the adrenaline from my audition-day audacity began to fade, I spent Monday questioning my decision. I wanted to become a stronger performer, and it was clear, after just one day, that Sarah could transform my dancing. A year sounded like a long time, but, in the grand scheme, it wasn’t actually a very big commitment. I had had a knee-jerk reaction to the immediate physical pain of the movement, but my body would adapt to it over time — the movement would become less strenuous. If making my own work continued to feel important, there was no reason why I couldn’t do that alongside dancing for Sarah. Most importantly, I was still fascinated by the glimpse of the process that I had seen in a single day; I needed to know where, over the course of a year, that glimpse would lead to. On Tuesday, I emailed Sarah and asked to be invited back into the room.
Had I not started off my working relationship with Sarah by refusing to meet her on her terms, I’m not sure I would have thought as deeply about if I was ready to commit to this work — mentally, emotionally, and energetically — for a year after only one day in the studio. I could have just said “Yep, I’m available” on the audition day, bought myself some more time, and figured it out from there. But if I was going to advocate for her to bring me back after my initial refusal, I felt that I needed to know, beyond reasonable doubt, that I truly wanted to be in the room. My refusal had inadvertently jump started my investment in the project by forcing me to decide whether or not I was going to trust Sarah as an artist, whether or not I was going to pick up what she was putting down.
After a few more rounds of emails, I was invited back. By the time I showed up to my first rehearsal at City Center, I had committed myself to being all-in. Had I not come into the room with this attitude of total commitment, I’m not sure I would have ended up as one of four dancers in the final cast of the dance that eventually became Sarah’s work 4.
“I owe it to the dancing just to do it and not muddy it with what I want from it. When I go sensation-seeking, I’m no longer doing the dancing in the same way; I use the dancing as a means to an end, rather than honoring what it is and putting its integrity as first priority.” Written in my journal on September 28, 2015, the day after the final performance of Sarah’s piece tournamento at the Walker Art Center, this passage encapsulates my devotion to dance at its peak.
tournamento was a competition. Four dancers — Nicole Mannarino, Rachel Berman, Jennifer Lafferty, and myself — each competing against one another for points assigned by a panel of three judges: Madeline Wilcox, Danielle Goldman, and James Tyson. Each dancer had their own catalog of codified movements — mine was a repertoire of jumps and turns. Our execution was scored by the judges in real time and assigned a point value. The scores were cumulative, adding up over the four performances to end with a final winner. Each movement had its own rubric for scoring, but the overarching goal was to perform each of these moves with a kind of unfettered clarity. The dancing was to be executed from a place of direct, conscious intention — no extraneous affect, no meta-commentary within the action, no automatic stringing together of a sequence or “phrase” out of habit. The approach was similar, in many ways, to what I had been exposed to in the audition two and a half years earlier.
The week leading up to the performance at the Walker was exhausting. We rehearsed in the theater everyday, warming up at 10:00am and working with Sarah in shifts, often one-on-one, until 8:00pm, at which point I’d bike to the YMCA to give my joints some relief in the pool before crashing at the hotel. The show days were not much shorter. Each performance began at 4:00pm and ended at 9:00pm. The competition included an element of chance operations that determined who danced on stage when; while no single competitor danced for the full five hours of any show, we all had to be ready and available to compete from the first minute to the last.
On the third day of performances, my delirium reached a tipping point. During my solo rehearsal with Sarah and Madeline that afternoon, I felt like I was running on an empty tank. I couldn’t bring the same amount of push and effort to my jumping and turning. I remember Madeline’s tepid enthusiasm: “the work you’re doing here is much clearer than what you did last night.” She said it with a slightly skeptical tone, her chin angled down and one eyebrow raised, like she didn’t want to jinx anything. This wasn’t the feedback I had expected.
After rehearsal, I wrote, “[d]o I get scared of digestion and then push? In [rehearsal] I risk more digestion, I risk being accused of digestion. But apparently taking that risk is doing something clear for my work. So take the risk.” To “digest,” in this context, was to analyze the work as I was doing it, to ruminate on it, to zoom out and observe it, rather than to stay present and alert from one moment to the next. “Pushing” refers to my tendency to tip the scale in the opposite direction of digestion and move hurriedly from one movement to the next. It was a strategy for communicating to Sarah, through my action, the measures I was taking to avoid digestion. Yet putting on a show of not digesting was no less extraneous to the task of each movement than digestion itself.
That night, I dropped the push. Indeed, it felt like a risk. I brought a certain amount of not caring about what I looked like to my dancing. I stopped using sensation as the barometer of success (the barometer: more sensation, higher high = better dancing). Each jump was calmer, less frantic. I was exhausted, but there was less labored breathing than the previous nights. Having thrown my own somatic feedback mechanisms to the wind, I managed to retain the ephemeral clarity that Madeline had observed in rehearsal earlier in the day. My dancing didn’t necessarily feel better — it lacked the cathartic high that I so often sought — but its stakes had shifted away from my sensation and toward something else that, at the time, I imagined was the integrity of dancing itself. Again, the journal: “I’m moving the stakes away from sensation, ego, reputation, spectacle, and toward the integrity of movement. I’m understanding how to change my internal mechanisms.”
Before the run of shows at the Walker, I had looked forward to being done with tournamento, to rediscovering leisure. Now that the work had become a vehicle for the new research I’d begun of retooling my “internal mechanisms,” I just wanted to keep working. I didn’t want to lose momentum on what felt like a new chapter of my dancing and believed I could take this work with me into different projects I had coming up with other choreographers. I didn’t realize how dependent this new work was on the framework of Sarah’s practice, on our particular discourse and shared values.
I had set the bar so high for how I expected to be nourished by dancing — for the level of fulfillment that I expected to receive even from individual rehearsals — that most of the creative processes I joined after tournamento couldn’t meet my expectations. My devotion to dance wasn’t sustainable. This even applied to my work with Sarah: when we started working on a new piece in 2016, I couldn’t get into it. After a few months of struggling to stay open to different avenues of research, to different interests that didn’t feel exciting or stimulating enough to me, I decided to bow out.
Eventually my dogma began to soften; I began to appreciate different rehearsal processes and was fortunate to dance in many projects that I loved, projects that still mean a lot to me. While none of them approached the all-encompassing spiritual fulfillment of tournamento, this is for the best. I have no regrets about the dance and am exceedingly proud of the work that we, as a cast, did at the Walker, yet I would never choose to do it again. I continued to rehearse and perform up until the pandemic hit. When the virus canceled the few gigs I had lined up for 2020, I wasn’t broken up about it. In fact, I felt relieved to no longer have to struggle with the identity crisis of who I would be if I wasn’t actively pursuing performance work. While the abrupt and indefinite end of live performance was a bane for most, I was surprised to find in it a sense of solace.
Writing in 2022, I’ve made peace with losing my drive to pursue a career as a performer. When I see an audition post I get briefly excited by the idea of being in rehearsal, of forging an intimate albeit temporary community around artistic research, and, just as quickly, imagine that even if I did get cast, I would probably end up quitting. I still like seeing dances, I just don’t need to be in them right now.
In some ways, the alienation I’m feeling from performing is a logical outcome of my devotion to dance. Key to the work of retooling my “internal mechanisms” that I began during tournamento was the idea of stripping away traces of “ego” from my dancing. We used “ego” as a shorthand to describe a range of behaviors that we aimed to avoid. These included wanting to be the center of attention or dancing to please the audience — in short, anything that used dancing as a means to an end outside of our shared research interests. This was more than a formal exercise, more than a pursuit of dance for its own sake. We danced and worked for and with each other. The method was rigorous, but it was also a means of developing conviction and commitment to one another in a way that has continued well beyond the formal relationship of being a dancer in Sarah’s work. (For example, Sarah, Madeline, and I recently took a Gaga class together at the Mark Morris Dance Center in the same studio in which the three of us, along with Rachel and Nicole, rehearsed most of 4 almost a decade earlier.)
The project of “no-ego” initially came as a direction from Sarah, yet I eagerly adopted it as my own philosophy. Throughout our work together, I considered it part of my job as a dancer to put what I perceived to be the best interests of whichever work we were developing ahead of any personal agendas, interests, or desires I brought with me into the room. In the case of my post-tournamento work with Sarah, putting the best interests of the work first eventually meant stepping out of the process.
Of course, I was also full of contradictions: I stroked my own ego for believing in no-ego; I practiced no-ego as a strategy for getting more attention and affirmation, both in Sarah’s work and in other rehearsal processes. My own contradictions aside, at a certain point, if no-ego is in full effect, the question has to be asked: why be in the dance at all? In an economy where my side gigs pay more per hour than my dance work, if another performer can realize the potential of a work just as well as I can, is there truly any reason that bears no trace of ego for me to be in it over them? Perhaps the logical extension of no-ego, its full expression, is to abandon the hustle of being a performer all together: self-sacrifice as the ultimate act of devotion.
The major caveat here is that tournamento was built around the particular strengths and weaknesses of each of the cast members. My role was tailor-made for me — tailor-made not only to my strengths and weaknesses as a performer but to my psyche, to my worldview, to my accumulated life experiences, to my anxieties, to my devotional disposition. As Sarah wrote in the house program for tournamento, addressing the full cast, “more than ever before, the work is your work. You are amazing and I am beyond humbled.” I have no doubt that she meant it from the bottom of her heart. I’m not sure, then, that another performer could have realized the potential of my role in tournamento in the same way that I did.
In her 2011 interview with Philip Bither, Sarah responds to Philip’s question about the devotion of her dancers by addressing the reciprocity that sustains the dancer-choreographer relationship. “The thing that people get, dancers get…it’s a director. Someone is watching them and working in a very detailed way with them. And I think I’m so lucky to be in that position with those incredible people, but there’s a reciprocal thing.” The relationship works when the dancer wants to be watched and directed with the level of detail that Sarah brings to her role. In sum, it’s a relationship of exchange, not devotion. Yet the two are not mutually exclusive.
Over the course of our work together, what I understood to be Sarah’s vision of dance became my devotion, narrowing my experience of the field and feeding my critical discernment of what I considered good or valuable dancing. It opened my eyes to new possibilities of what dancing could be, could do, and could mean. Its constraints were clarifying and, at the same time, precipitated what could be considered a premature end to my career as a performer. Yes, my devotion to dance at large eventually superseded my devotion to Sarah’s vision, considering that I quit Sarah’s process to pursue my own interests, yet those very interests had blossomed thanks to Sarah’s direction — they were an extension of the values that I had inherited directly from her. Where does the choreographer end and the dancer begin?
Maybe there’s another chapter of performing ahead for me. I’d like to believe as much, yet I feel sated by the career I’ve had. My experiences as a dancer have been more meaningful than I could have imagined when I first began my career a decade ago. While my devotion to dance may not have been sustainable, its demise stems from a sense of completion: an arc fully realized.
In recent years, my relationship with Sarah has evolved from dancer-choreographer to something between friendship and extended family; the relationship sustains itself regardless of how often we do or don’t see each other. Most recently, we met up to talk about this essay — about how we each remembered the events of the audition and of tournamento. Discussing the text has reactivated some of the intimacy and vulnerability of making dances together. I give Sarah credit for planting the seeds of our continued relationship in her rehearsals: we used to spend hours endlessly discussing whichever dance we were making at the time. Sometimes we would spend an hour warming up only to find ourselves sitting on the floor talking for the remaining four or five hours of rehearsal. The conversations we began in dance studios carry on.
While performing has lost its allure, the practice of dancing continues. As we emerge from the pandemic, I’m rediscovering my love of dancing in social contexts: in class and in the club.
My approach to nightlife: eat an early dinner; skip the pregaming — rest at home and then head directly to the rave; if I’m home alone, maybe even do some light yoga before I leave the house. In some ways, my pre-rave routine is actually not so different from preparing for a performance. On the dance floor, I prefer my techno stripped down and on the acidic side. The music leads me to end up discovering my own dancing in real time — less choice-making, more listening to the feet. I often find myself doing a basic step from which the rest of my dancing evolves: an alternating chug step with arms and spine having a heyday up top or a pulsing step with my feet grounded in a wide straddle, pelvis low to the floor with a hunched back, chin jutting forward, loose fists punching the air in front of me.
On the best of these nights — heirs to the Northern Soul parties of Sarah’s youth, parties which planted the seeds of Devotion Study #3 — I begin to lose awareness of the details of my body dancing en route to losing my sense of self altogether. Through dancing, I merge with the deafening sound to become a void of nothingness suspended in the night. It’s only via the dancing that this can occur. Stop dancing and I’m me again.