Dogs at BAM

dogs.jpgAnticipation for Sarah Michelson’s DOGS at BAM ran high. Prior to a premiere, the British-born dancer/choreographer is passionately tight-lipped about her work. Shunning press releases and brochure blurbs, Michelson whips up a frenzy of curiosity that few artists enjoy. With a BAM debut added to the mix, a coveted prize for many “downtown” artists, the pre-opening frenzy reached a fever pitch of expectation -- perhaps unfair, perhaps cultivated –- but nearly impossible to fulfill.

The visual elements, designed by Michelson and Parker Lutz, who both danced in the work, were truly breathtaking. Out of a black and white maze of tile grew an oversized flower made of theatrical lights. From the ceiling sprawled a hanging vine of the same giant, light-giving flowers. On the side brick-walls, lit images (think Bat Signal) appeared and disappeared –- a tree, a cat glaring at the action. A large, white dining room table sat just off center boasting a platter overflowing with whole, roasted chickens, (which were served to the audience at intermission.) During the second act, a white openwork screen resting upstage replaced the light-flowers, and a rolling haze caught the bright pink light, which then flooded the space. The world was austere and complete.

The choreography itself, however, didn’t achieve the same impact. Watching the movement of DOGS made me want to take a ballet class, but I don’t think that was Michelson’s intention. In her cold, distancing, classical world, the movement she referenced was more interesting than the movement she gave us. Despite her apparent commentary that classical ballet is cold and distant and perhaps treats dancers like dogs, her mundane, repetitive choreography made me long for the likes of Ivanov and Petipa’s Swan Lake, or Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, and I’ve long since buried my pointe shoes in favor of more contemporary explorations in dance.

Mike Iveson’s score, particularly for the first act, achieved what the choreography never quite did. It took classical elements and executed them to perfection, only to stand them on their heads when you least expected it. His sweeping score with overlays of oboe and flute, reminiscent of Tchakovsky’s brilliant score for Swan Lake would suddenly wind down, as if someone had cut a power source, and we would hear, faintly from offstage, a sadder, simpler tune, like something wafting into the theater from a small café. Another layer, an acoustic guitar loop, lulled us from forward-facing, downstage speakers, repeatedly narrowing our focus, only to widen it again with orchestral surround sound.

Controversial as she is, I’ve genuinely enjoyed Michelson’s previous works. Images from Group Experience, which premiered at Performance Space 122 in 2001, still surface in my memory with nearly the same power they held in performance. What made that piece so wonderful was that it indeed created what the title promised. The audience was in on the experience, and in on the joke. The performers were having fun. They were laughing at themselves, and they were also being sincere. Over the years, it seems that Michelson has retained her arch commentary on movement and self-mockery, but she has gradually distanced the audience so greatly that her sincerity, which I do believe is still intact, is nearly lost on us. We are left wondering why we were invited to this party in the first place. Yes, we were all served the same chicken, but they ate on stage, and we were served in the lobby by representatives of the hostess whom we did not recognize. - Sarah Maxfield

Sarah Michelson’s DOGS at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is now closed after running October 18-21, 2006.

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Ms. Maxfield is the co-founder and artistic director of Red Metal Mailbox, a New-York based company dedicated to creating investigative works of theater by linking original text with a highly physical aesthetic. In addition to directing and performing with RMM, Sarah works a day job in arts administration and occasionally writes about performance.

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