The Best Artist in America Has a Bugle Horn and Isn’t Afraid to Use It
Sarah Michelson is a public servant and can do anything she wants.
Sarah Michelson at the Kitchen's 2014 Spring Gala Benefit. Photo by Paul Zimmerman/WireImage.
I once remarked to the man who literally put together the book on Sarah Michelson that she was either the best or the worst artist in America. The potential to be either is in the palm of her hand, but that’s not all she has a grip on. There’s also her rubber-ended bugle horn, for one, and me, for another. Standing at the head of her audience during the world premier of May2018/\ at the recently rebranded Performance Space in the East Village last Friday, she wove her arms through the air, as if in a semaphore for bringing nothing at all to a landing, while squeezing a note out of her clownish instrument. Honk! “Cornflakes,” she announced.
Do you see my dilemma? This is exactly what our parents were afraid of, this getting involved with “the arts” and spending lovely evenings in glamorous cities having trash bag-sporting choreographers yell at you to touch their assholes. Regardless, Michelson has been a fixture of the downtown contemporary dance scene since the 1990s and inspires fierce loyalty from specific enclaves of the more or less innocent culture hounds trying to sniff around for greatness. You can find it here, but the trick is to have zero expectations, and not because SM lacks standards (she is nothing but rigorous), but because her standards are so obviously her own that you’d better check your flimsily manufactured ones at the door.
A motorized toy eagle suspended on a wire flapped in stupid rotations at the back of the room throughout the performance, mirrored by a rainbow-platform-shod young woman’s methodical twirling of her own ponytail on a raised stage. I remembered her from last October at the Kitchen, how Sarah called her Bunny. Bunny brightly chirped, “I’m a mess,” and ringleader Michelson retorted: “You’re not old.” (SM loves a little grounded moment in her elevated lunacy.) Little of the rest of the performance bothered to ever mount the stage; instead, the audience was centered in the middle of the room while the artists delivered their repetitive injunctions and perorations at the margins of the theater. They were dancers—Michelson is a choreographer by trade, after all—but they circulated via slight movements and thread time through bold declarations rather than grand physical gestures. As Michelson would put it (and she did): “A phone is ringing! Someone trying to get in touch! I felt that. Because I’m a dancer! S-w-p-g.”
Queen Michelson announced: “I’m walking casual but I don’t feel casual FYI.” It’s extremely hard to make this all look easy, but the grace remained. Bunny goes, “Healthcare! Yip!” Everything is so dumb and SM is the one of the few who’s smart enough to work with that. “I’m a public servant,” the artist snarled. Thank you for your service. She moseyed with unclassifiable intention into the center of the rows of audience members, instructing people to duck, maybe to prepare them for absolute zilch arriving. It wasn’t good enough though, and she lambasted the gathered viewers: “When I say duck, also lean back!” More tyranny, thank god. Near the end of the show, she sprawled on the ground in front of a player piano, shouting, “I grew up here right here!” Then: “I’m old. Very, very old.” A man whose face was covered by a cat’s visage stands at respectful attention by the player piano, wearing the staff t-shirt from neighboring Ukrainian joint Veselka. For some reason, people clap at the end of her shows, but no one really knows when they’re over. Performance Space is on First Avenue and East Ninth Street, and Veselka at Ninth and Second. I passed by the latter on the way home, knowing it was all still going on.
Sarah Michelson’s May2018/\ runs through May 5 at Performance Space.