Choreography for Philosophy Majors: Catching up With Michelle Ellsworth on her DiverseWorks Performance

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Michelle Ellsworth was last seen on the DiverseWorks stage dancing and talking up a storm in All Clytemnestra on the Western Front, her ode to the classics. She’s been steadily producing heady work for the past decade. This time around she’s out to solve the world’s problems with 150lb dress named “ED” in ED-The Word Made Dress and a contraption known as The Monkey Saddle. The second work on the DiverseWorks program, The Monkey Saddle, takes the religious route, and includes a midi monkey suit with the accompaniment of several animated films and two pieces of furniture. Ellsworth’s work has been seen at Jacob’s Pillow, Dance Theater Workshop, On the Boards, The Sushi, The Telluride Experimental Film Festival, and The Solo Mio Festival. I had the pleasure of sharing a program with her called Textural Works at DiverseWorks about 10 years ago. I have since discovered that we both share the odd distinction of being “Philosophy Majors.”

The New York Times called her “smart, cute, and profoundly irritating,” I’ll go with the smart part. She currently teaches in the Theatre and Dance Department at University of Colorado in Boulder. We visited by phone from her Mountain home.

DH: Have you always talked in your dances?
ME: I was a dancer first. I went the academic route as a philosophy major at NYU. I took a dance class from Sara Pearson. We had to speak and move at the same time. I did it and it was finally clear– this is what I do. I could reconcile these worlds and combine two lands that I love so much, dance land and the verbal thinking land.

DH: Can you describe the soup of ideas that gave birth to ED: The Word Made Dress?
ME: This is a post 911 piece, born out of frustration of the traditional coping mechanisms like democracy, religion, and psychology. I needed to solve problems in a concrete way. ED does that.

DH: Describe Ed: The Word Made Dress.
ME: I come out in Elizabethan dress but it’s on pentagonal base. The dress is perpetually evolving. I am solving problem but at the same time I am forfeiting freedom. You be hard pressed to call this a dance-I do very little dancing. But the fact that I am not dancing, is very symptomatic or our post 911 condition. Ed solves problems while generating a whole another set of problems.

DH: Why a dress?
ME: In the piece I talk about the great divide of the 1400s, the binary split between the left and right leg where people started people wearing pants. The separation of the left leg from the right seem to be a symptom of an unhealthy situation. It’s not a female thing. The dress has the ability to conceal. It’s quite versatile. I consider it a performance sculpture.

DH: Why Ed?
ME: I’m still not sure. Ed might be related to Id.

DH: Ed is most certainly related to Id. Good thinking. I am curious, how do you research your work?
ME: I read a lot to make my pieces. I read close to 20 books in the creation of the second piece, The Monkey Saddle. I read about religion, the practice of pain and sacrifice. The idea comes first, and then I do the research. I read to understand why I make certain choices.

DH: The PR reads. “Through wireless infra-red, gyroscopic, pressure, and flex sensors that send motion data to a computer – her new problem-solving attire triggers a range of actions, including a video image of her personally postulated supreme being and the musical accompaniment for the Sacred Hand-Shake-for-One.” So you are tackling religion?
ME: Ed focuses on problems in the material world. In The Monkey Saddle the outfit I am wearing addresses religious problems. Both pieces are informed by global and political events, but if you are not interested in politics you probably won’t notice or mind.

DH: Are these two works a pair?
ME: Yes, they are companions. They both focus on solving problems through fashion. Ed is two yeas old. The Monkey Saddle just premiered this January at On the Boards in Seattle commissioned DW and the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art as part of NPN creation fund.

DH: How do you train for your work?
ME: The making of the piece is the training for the piece. It tells me what I need to know. No supplement training is required.

DH: How do you use improvisation in your work?
ME: The pieces are different every night. I have ten times more information than I need on any given night. Depending on how it’s going, navigating through both of the pieces, different things get emphasized. This is kind of new. My pieces were historically more scripted while my movement was more improvised. In The Monkey Saddle I have all these sensors built into my monkey suit that send information to a computer. If I move in a certain way I can trigger a specific hymn. My choreography has to be very specific to trigger these religious artifacts, or get to effects or get the wrong effect. People most think someone in the back is pushing buttons on DVD player, but the suit and the choreography really are sending data to the computer and the computer is controlling the music and videos.

DH: Who are your collaborators?
ME: My collaborators are incredibly essential to this work, especially Michael Theodore who makes the animation, the music, and does all the computer programming for The Monkey Saddle. His work really fueled and inspired me. Janice Benning-Lacek makes all my costumes. Priscilla Cohan makes my sets.

DH: What’s next for you?
ME: I am working on piece called Excerpts of 21 Pieces That Don’t Exist. I am making pieces that don’t have an existence except in an excerpt form. So, I am making a record of something that doesn’t exist. Rather than taking something out of context, it has no context.

DH: How do audiences respond to your work?
ME: I am always surprised who responds to my work. So many different kinds of people respond to the work for different reasons. Math people get the math part. Kids like the work but they don’t get some of the references. People often respond with laughter, which I always find surprising, because I think both of these pieces are quite sad and I personally have no loyalty to humor.

DH: Well, in the past I have been quilty of finding your work funny, but funny in a biochemical way. The juxtaposition of ideas causes crashes in my neurotransmitters, and the result is often a kind of intellectual derailment. It’s a kind of depth humor, not for the faint of heart. I understand you also draw cartoons too. How does that fit in?
ME: They are part of my leakage. Sometimes I am making performances pieces, sometimes I make cartons. If I’m not making performance work that energy goes into cartoons. I make videos also. I draw a lot in the summer. The cartoons fuel the performances pieces.

DH: Thanks for taking the time to bring me up to speed on your work. I found our time together entertaining, informative, and not the least bit irritating. I wish you the best of luck with your DW performances.

Michelle Ellsworth performs ED-The Word Made Dress & The Monkey Saddle, at DiverseWorks on February 18 & 19th at 8pm. Call 713- 335-3445 or visit www.diverseworks.org

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