Features and Occasionals

Elizabeth, the Dance

By Katherine Pioli

University of Utah alumna Ann Carlson makes a name for herself in the modern dance world and returns to SLC to work with Ririe-Woodbury choreographing.

Let’s consider, for a moment, Ann Carlson—dancer, choreographer, performance artist—through her choice of costuming. She has performed totally naked, walking on all fours like a gorilla while carrying a live kitten in her mouth (Animals, 1988). She has gestured and bowed alongside a Jersey cow while also naked except for the covering of a sheer raincoat stuffed in the waist and hood with dollar bills (Madame 710, 2008). And she has changed on stage into a grass suit, pants and jacket, made of Astroturf (Grass/Bird/Rodeo, 1998) while explaining to her audience that the suit was something she had longed, even yearned, for “both as a thing to wear and as a visual idea.”


Since the 1980s Ann Carlson has been entertaining New York City black box theater audiences (though she recently relocated to L.A.) with these hilarious, touching, cerebral antics. Through costuming or props or simply through the use of human bodies (see her work The Symphonic Body, 2013), Carlson creates visual events. They may shock or confuse or bring one to laughter but always are sustained by a deeper purpose. Animals touches on the human/animal connection, Madame 710 on the consumer’s relationship with industrial animals and agriculture, Grass/Bird/Rodeo reflects on humans’ place in landscape. It’s the kind of work that earns the label avant-garde.


This month Carlson brings her unique brand of intellectual (but not snobbish) performance to Salt Lake City with the world premiere of Elizabeth, the dance, her latest full evening-length work, performed by Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company.


The Elizabeth project isn’t Carlson’s first foray into the Utah dance scene. As an undergraduate student in modern dance at the University of Utah in the mid-1970s, Carlson studied under Joan Woodbury and Shirley Ririe, the founders of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company (1964). The connection between Carlson and her professors continued as Carlson became an established choreographer, contributing along with other smaller pieces a larger work called 50 Years, in celebration of Utah’s statehood centennial. Carlson’s return with Elizabeth, the dance, was in no small part influenced by these connections.


“I had this idea and I called the company to ask if they would be interested. That’s a very unusual thing to do,” says Carlson, “but I thought it was good fit. They have such a deep history with the form of modern dance. It’s a very young form, barely 100 years old, and I knew that this company is deeply rooted in it. It’s in these dancers’ bodies.”


Elizabeth, the dance is Carlson’s homage to modern dance. “I’m standing on shoulders of people who came before me,” she explains, dancers and visual artists like Meredith Monk, Trisha Brown and Deborah Hay, members of the famed Judson Dance Theater who expanded the definition of dance, recognizing that all conscious movement can be dance movement. And for Carlson, no company other that Ririe-Woodbury would be able to fully realize this homage.


During a brief glimpse into the rehearsal process last February, Carlson and the Ririe-Woodbury dancers seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the process of developing and refining the work. When I arrived, mini-fridge-sized white foam blocks lay scattered across the floor. At a cue from Carlson the dancers stacked the blocks into an eight-foot-high wall and prepared to topple it. As the dance progressed the blocks continually changed the space and the energy of the room: stacked, they became perches, the dancers moving and resting like birds; leveled and pushed into a platform, they became a mattress on which the dancers reclined and played hand games.


“I knew that [the wall] was the visual I wanted to use,” says Carlson who began working with a designer over a year ago to bring her vision to life. “With Elizabeth I’m playing with desire and eager, open, charged moments and experiences. The wall [brings to the piece] an ancient quality. It’s precarious and little scary and real. It shifts and moves.”


Over the decades, Ann Carlson has worked with trained dancers like those in the Ririe-Woodbury company, she’s given choreography to nuns and lawyers and the Stanford men’s volleyball team and moved on stage alongside goldfish and goats. Her work carries forward the contemporary philosophy that everything has a way of moving and influencing movement, all as valid as the next. In some ways, says Carlson, she even thinks of her white wall as a dancer.


The world premiere of Elizabeth, the dance would undoubtedly be welcome in a city like Los Angeles or New York. But by Carlson’s estimation Utah is just the right place. “It’s import for me to honor the company for taking this up,” says Carlson. “Running with it and with me. A whole evening of new work is daring and we are committed to making something that has a long life.”


APR 13-15, 2017 | 7:30 pm
Matinee Performance  APR 15 | 2:00 pm

Leona Wagner Black Box Theater

Tickets and info HERE





This article was originally published on April 4, 2017.