Performance artist Michelle Ellsworth's onstage persona is a fascinating mix of humility and daring, mockery and gentleness. She comes across as a deferential satirist, a playful deep thinker, someone who expresses serious concerns with effervescent humor, operating sideways and using movement, objects and a highly eccentric take on everyday concerns to make her point.
Ellsworth has just received a $50,000 USA Fellowship Grant , an award designed to invest in "America's finest artists and to illuminate their value," according to the program. "You get nominated and then invited to apply; they give you $100 to apply," she explains. "I was doing it for the hundred bucks. Otherwise I'd never have applied, because I thought I didn't have a chance in hell."
But when the awards were announced Monday, she was one of fifty artists to make the cut -- and the only one in Colorado. Ellsworth says she's "humbled by the neighborhood," and particularly pleased to be recognized for her work in dance -- although she has a "rather expansive definition" of the word, that includes paying homage to the form through its absence.
But then her aesthetic is dense, and easily accommodates contrarieties.
Ellsworth trained with the San Francisco Ballet Company until she suffered an injury at the age of fifteen: "I was training too hard, and growing too fast at the same time." Her background includes a stint with a handful of modern dance groups in New York, including the Eric Hawkins Dance Company, and a degree in history and philosophy from NYU. When she took a class from improvisational artist Sara Pearson and was asked to speak and dance at the same time, "That was a clarifying noment for me," she recalls. "My physical and intellectual worlds were separate. I wasn't articulate enough as a choreographer or as a thinker. I could never express myself. When I was able to combine both arenas I felt articulate for the first time."
Ellsworth's reaction to 9/11 was a piece called Ed: The World Made Dress, in which she sought shelter from all the world's fears and insecurities in a huge sculptural dress. According to my 2002 review of the work, the dress became: "An escape. A womb. A place to hide. But it's also the whole world, because she's incorporated everything that matters to her in its design. The hem contains aluminum poles that can be screwed together -- in a pentagonal shape, because that's organic, and so is she -- and in the poles are things she needs: some vinyl, a paintball gun, a spice rack ('Security's important, but I don't want to sacrifice flavor'). Essentially, the piece consists of Ellsworth's running monologue as she fiddles with the dress, explaining its virtues, transforming it into everything from a confessional booth to a movie screen."
"Dance is always central to the work," Ellsworth says, "though you could say I didn't dance at all in Ed." She points out that there was a shrine to Martha Graham in the piece and "I lit a candle to herald Martha's spirit. By making a piece with the absence of dance, I was trying to emphasize the importance of dance."
There is some actual dance in the Burger Foundation section of her website, where she explains that, "When we choreograph and dance with the burger we are able to embody and experience the burger in a more intimate and full-bodied fashion." But the very two-dimensionality of the website only emphasizes the three-dimensionality of dance, she explains.
When Ellsworth came to Colorado to teach at the University of Colorado, she found the place freeing. "I felt there was a community of experimentation here, and I felt sufficiently cloistered," she remembers. "My ability to listen to the pieces has become stronger and I've become more devout as an artist in terms of my commitment to the pieces. I really try to do everything they ask of me. When I make one of these pieces I'm not even asking myself if it sucks ... I don't know if a piece if going to suck or not, but I do know I'm doing everything I possibly can for it."
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What does she hope people will see in her work? "Before I go onstage, I'm talking to myself and I'm hoping I'm not going to waste anybody's time," she says, "and that I can provoke a re-evaluation of assumptions. Assumptions about anything."
For example, "The relationship between humans and burgers is completely routinized. People buy and consume them all the time," she says. So the Burger Foundation is devoted to alternative ways of looking at burgers: "choreography with burgers, transformations with burgers, veggie burgers, plastic burgers, ultimately with gestures that represent burgers. If you can shake up your relationship with your burger you can change your interpersonal relationships, your relationship to the environment."
But Ellsworth's work is not dogmatic, and she's not trying to teach. "I start by having an idea," she says, "asking a question, so the piece is teaching me. I'm committed to challenging my own assumptions. There's an improvisational component, too, which really keeps me honest. The piece is not cooked, it's still moving." And it pleases her that the website is infinitely changeable too.
But it always comes back to dance: "Movement doesn't lie. With the body, you're always dealing with gravity. In this high tech, superficial and manipulated world of facts and politics, there's an authenticity that gravity provides. Dance is my native language as an artist and my home."