02/23/2011 04:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Half-way Between Gesture and Thought: Choreographer Sarah Michelson's "Devotion"

There is a point in Devotion when, after watching at least twenty sweaty minutes of aerobic sprints and clumsily struck tableaux, you are praying for Jim Fletcher. Fletcher, one of the two non-dancers cast in the male roles of choreographer Sarah Michelson's latest work, is not only not a dancer but also not in particularly stellar shape, and his shirtless torso, the more liquid parts set a-jiggle by the extreme demands of Michelson's choreography and a harsh light pendulum swinging overhead, stand in stark contrast to the prodigious technique of the female cast members. Fletcher, one might say, is the closest thing to comic relief in the almost two hours of heady, uninterrupted choreography.

Sitting in a 300-person audience with Marina Abramovic and members of the Wooster Group, one gets the sense that Michelson, for those that don't know her work, is an artist's artist. Devotion, her collaboration with New York City Players' Creative Director Rich Maxwell, just finished a sold-out run at The Kitchen in NYC last month and two performances at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis this past week, and it will go on later this year to runs in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In heavy conversation with Tharp, Cunningham, and Childs, the piece could be, beginning to end, a survey of the modern dance canon (among other parallels drawn in the piece is that between Artist and Divine Creator.) But much of that work is highly purist, and one consequence of Michelson's casting choice is the way in which it undermines the notion of Modern Dance as sacred. Michelson seems, in Devotion, to be particularly engaged with populating the space of the sacred (both in the literal and in the figurative senses) with the personal, the flawed, the contemporary -- in a word, the profane. Maxwell's text, in opening and closing monologues, overwrites the story of his family's trans-American migration onto the biblical arc of the Creation and Redemption allegories, a contemporary flavor skillfully affected by somehow tasteful references to free-basing. As the piece progresses, the deeply reverent formalistic vocabulary danced in the opening solo and subsequent duet between Mary and Jesus unravels into free and natural movement --i.e., running. The penultimate act, set in the Garden, finds Eve, flanked by the Narrator and the Spirit of Religion, desperately sprinting from one end of the space to the other, back and forth, as if in attempt to coax Fletcher's Adam, panting and crumbling and hardly "dancing" at all, to run along with them.

But if Michelson's work deconstructs the sacred, refusing the definitiveness of any canon or idol worship -- religious, artistic, philosophical or otherwise -- she builds something unarguable in its place: a heartbreaking rumination on the story of female alterity. Indeed, the profane has historically been ascribed within the intellectual realm of the female, and Michelson's literal pun of distributing professionalism along gender lines works in tandem with her appropriation of the male-written text (here, by God as well as Maxwell) into a female-danced and female-spoken meditation on solidarity, echoing, among others, the feminist programs of Sherrie Levine's photography and Abigail Solomon-Godeau's criticism.

The work as a whole seems to rewrite the Creation allegory as the story of each of those eternal Creators, those mothers of art and human and sin and mystery -- and the challenges that bind them together: "Eve whispers the secret of life to Mary as Mary sleeps." There is perhaps no more poignant a moment in the entire piece than when small, fierce 14-year-old Non, who has just danced roughly 35 minutes of painstaking, awe-inspiring choreography as Mary and whom we are rooting for above all, falls reverently at the feet of Jesus, who strikes an uncomfortably indulgent and awkwardly amateurish crucifixion pose above her. One's heart falls with Non and her overwhelming achievement as as dancer as they descend into the shadow of this quivering figure who, in being crowned "Son of God," all but writes Mary out of history for good (in the meantime parlaying his supporting role status into a solo feature on Devotion's promotional postcard).

The New York Times' review of Michelson's piece touches on one of the most brilliant moments in Maxwell's text -- Mary wondering to herself "Why this woman? It is too great a burden," but it is surprising how little the gendered themes of the work have been discussed elsewhere, even in the non-academic coverage that has emerged so far. But then again, a feminist reading is only one of many that Michelson invites in in order to deconstruct. The particular genius of Devotion (along with Michelson's more generalized genius, also on display) lies in its ability to be at once willfully overloaded with theme, reference, the canon, history, argument, and rebellion, and to simultaneously dissolve each of their claims to defining the meaning of the work. With its borrowed Philip Glass score and ironic track-suit and referee costumes, Devotion becomes a system of hieroglyphics complex enough to satisfy everyone from Aristotle to Zizek. But the work triumphs in being so viscerally gripping and overwhelmingly intelligent that our attempts at solving the puzzle always fall short, and what we come away with is not a thesis but rather, as Antonin Artaud wrote, "an appeal to certain un-habitual ideas... ideas which touch on Creation, Becoming, and Chaos, [and] are all of a cosmic order... which by their very nature cannot be limited or even formally depicted." In Michelson's theater, layer upon layer of obsessive theory and technique, danced methodically and diligently out in the duet between Mary and Jesus, melts away in Eve's bounding rocket across the stage, aerobic and unending, eyes and movements pointing ever upward, overflowing with the lightness of the beginning of the world. Pace Artaud, "It is of little importance whether the other levels are really conquered by the mind or by the intelligence; it would diminish them... What is important is that the sensitivity is put into a state of deepened and keener perception, and this is the very object of the magic and the rites of which the theater is only a reflection."