Ode to Sweat

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Nicole Mannarino in Sarah Michelson’s “Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer.” Photos: Paula Court.

Perspiration is so par for the course in dance that it typically doesn’t warrant mention, beyond the occasional casual one. Dancers work hard; they sweat; big deal.

Except every once in awhile it is a big deal. I remember watching Savion Glover dance in a small club years ago, and I remember it viscerally: the way his jackhammering tap shoes made my rib cage and sternum feel like railroad ties anticipating an oncoming train. The sometimes almost painful intensity of the sounds those shoes made. And, maybe most of all, what it felt like when he would whip his head around, releasing a fine spray of sweat over the audience. It was thrilling.

Sarah Michelson’s Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer happened at more of a remove at the Whitney Biennial. I don’t have a strong memory of what my body felt like watching and listening (though James Lo’s spooky, evocative score has stayed with me).

What I do remember is the inexorable darkening of Nicole Mannarino’s costume (by James Kidd and Michelson) as her sweat seeped through the royal blue fabric of her angel-winged, chest-revealing suit. By the end of the show, you could have wrung it out.

The demands Michelson places on her dancers are often excruciating to watch, and all of the dancers were laboring (at one point, when they paused and held poses, an actual rivulet of sweat snaked down the inside thigh of the heroic Eleanor Hulihan). But Mannarino was on another plane, dancing from start to finish of the 80-minute work. She did so almost entirely in relevé, sweeping backwards in punishing circles. She faltered, but never failed.

Michelson’s program quotes Balanchine, describing the angelic quality of American dancers. I love that quote. And yet. This was devotion, on an epic, but utterly human scale. It was there for all to see, literally, seeping from Mannarino’s every pore.

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