on Devotion Mar 11, 2011

by Tonya Lockyer

There is singularly nothing that makes a difference a difference in beginning and
in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different
at which they are all looking. By this I mean so simply that anybody knows it that
composition is the difference which makes each and all of them then different
from other generations and this is what makes everything different . . .

–Gertrude Stein, Composition as Explanation

Be warned: Lane and Sarah say that Sarah said that words can “ruin the spell that allows seemingly disparate parts to unify on stage.” Be assured: Underlying the use of fragmentation is a faith in the interdependence of all things.

Sarah Michelson and I both studied at the Cunningham studios in the early 90s. She was lush, outgoing, outrageous and seemed to be having more fun than the more obedient Cunningham acolytes. Watching Devotion I thought about how Merce’s ideas might have impacted Sarah’s approach. I don’t know if this is what Sarah was thinking, but this is what I was thinking:

Merce’s aim was not to represent or symbolize life, but to wake us up to life.

When asked what his dances meant Merce responded, “This means this is what I am doing.”

Merce insisted every movement be given equal emphasis and be performed to its fullest: “Every movement is a climax.” Concentrated. Stillness is as important as movement. Without stillness there can be no movement just as without silencethere can be no sound.

In Devotion movements return, retrograde, repeat. What happens when an artist uses repetition in performance? Does it remind us that in performance nothing is ever repeated? There is only change.

“Pain makes change. Now there is awareness.”*

After the performance some are offended, or at best perplexed, that Devotion quotes movements from Cunningham, Lucinda Childs and Twyla Tharp. Are they also offended when Duchamp paints a moustache on the Mona Lisa, or the Verve repeats a riff from the Rolling Stones who take the riff from Muddy Waters who had the riff passed on to him? Is there a difference?

(Imagine Andy Warhol’s Elvis I & II here.)

When an artist takes a sign out of context and repeats it the art is in the selection, the recontextualization and the composition. “Composition is the difference which makes each and all of them then different from other generations and this is what makes everything different . . . .” (Stein) The difference is in the repetition.

See In The Upper Room:

Michelson says Devotion is for those who are “really watching, and watching in context” and that her dances are “not for tourists.” Does it matter if you cannot read the signs or guideposts—if you’ve never seen Tharp’s In The Upper Room or Cunningham’s dances? (I don’t think so, but there is a difference.)

My body remembers dancing in Cunningham classes—the pure pleasure of the doing for no reason other than the doing. The testing of ones limits, ones capacity and will to overcome whatever might inhibit your complete devotion to the doing of the thing, each thing in its time and place.

Dancers dissolved into the doing: carving out their space with lines, arcs and trajectories. Virtuosic measurement of time and space. Fierce rigor. Absolute
commitment to the perfectly imperfect. Awkward bodies: “Extreme. Rare. Right now.”*
They are the story.
Their eyes never glaze over. Their eyes are always watching. Watching. Watching.

Yes, I am the person who gave the pre-show lecture before Michelson’s last OtB show Daybreak on “How Artists Re-imagine Space” that some blame for inspiring the audience to rise out of their seats and roam the theater during the performance, inspiring Michelson to (supposedly) call Seattleites “a bunch of fucking hippies.” I enjoyed Daybreak, especially the roaming. I still find it hard to believe that New York and Minneapolis audiences were so obedient they remained in their seats behind barriers that only left the sight of the dancers’ bobbing heads.

T. M. Davy’s large oil portraits of Michelson and Richard Maxwell suspended (omnipotent?) in ink black voids evoke a memory: the velvet painting my father
sheepishly brought home in the 70s. He knew it was kitsch—a woman breast-feeding in candlelight materialized through a few brush-strokes on plush black velvet. I grew to love that painting and its insight into my father’s conception of the divine.

A tolling bell of light.


The ending: “We’ll be ourselves, plain and true. Undivided. Voluminous. Yours.” *

* Text from Devotion.

Tonya Lockyer