Choreographer, performer, and conceptual artist, Ann Carlson- Borrowing their breath

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Choreographer, performer, and conceptual artist, Ann Carlson- Borrowing their breath

by Sonja Swenson on Monday, June 6, 2011 - 6:01am

This spring’s Artist’s Salon brought choreographer, performer and conceptual artist Ann Carlson to the Clayman Institute for a dynamic mix of performance and discussion. Ann Carlson, a guest artist the Stanford University drama department and division of dance since March 2010, describes Stanford campus as “a big container of ideas” from which we all borrow the “fragileness of life”– the breath.

With rapid-fire delivery, Carlson began the salon energetically auctioning off of the breath to the highest bidder. Bewildered at first, the audience began to place bids on the inhale, the exhale, and even the space between the two. How high do I bid? Effortlessly trading the Missourian accent for her natural Illinoisian, Carlson next encouraged the audience to leave our seats, move around and explore a space that wasn’t ours. We side-stepped around furniture, examined the corners of the room and ran our hands along surfaces. In these brief exercise, as in her performance work, Carlson draws our attention to the elements of our everyday experiences that surround and sustain us.

While ideas for her work spring from multiple locations of inspiration, Carlson is particularly fascinated by what she calls “the naïve gesture” – a functional gesture of the everyday. Finding these subtle movements in the workplace and by observing ordinary interactions between people, she then sequences, layers, and recasts these movements in to design a new choreography. Trained in dance at the University of Utah and University of Arizona, Carlson’s work also borrows from a wide variety of disciplines including performance, theater, public and conceptual art. Carlson is even a graduate of the Auctioneer School of Kansas City, Missouri, where she learned how to pronounce “dollar” as “daughter” to keep the words flowing off her tongue. Grounded in the life of the everyday, Carlson’s work encourages us to re-examine those living experiences.

In addition to exploring the what and the how of the routines we perform daily, Carlson explains that an important theme for her work is asking the question of, who gets access? Who is allowed to perform? Often project-based and organized within a series, her work engages diverse performers-- professional actors, non-acting professionals, fainting goats, dogs, and even a goldfish—and have been performed in barnyards, museums and stages across the nation and around the globe. In speaking about her series Animals, Carlson admits she likes the “unpredictable layer” that animals bring to live performance, but she also highlights that these unconventional performers push us to explore the “permeable membrane” between artifice and reality. Rather than worry that the dog might upstage the actress, Carlson invites the spectator to “notice how we notice” – to become aware of our biases and become conscious that we may be giving greater attention to the dog, perhaps expecting it to run off-stage.

In this way, Carlson’s work encourages us to both broaden and re-imagine the way we think about, respond to, and interact with performance. In the three-part video work Madame 710¬, Ann Carlson and videographer Mary Ellen Strom explores themes of femininity, possession and consumerism. Carlson, dressed in a clear plastic raincoat stuffed with money, performs a ritual-like dance of gratitude and humility around a calm, contemplative dairy cow. As she moves around the stark white gallery with hay strewn across the floor, the complex mutuality of their relationship unfolds; Carlson suggests that she is in the cow’s service and the cow is simultaneously in her service.

Constantly challenging our consciousness and sensitizing us to our relationships to our surroundings, Ann Carlson has received over thirty commissions and numerous awards for her artistic work, including a 2009 USA Artists Fellowship, a 2008 American Masterpiece award, a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship in choreography, a 2003 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, and a three-year choreographic fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. As a Visiting Scholar at the Stanford Humanities Center this academic year, Carlson has been teaching and leading workshops with Stanford students and faculty as well as developing new, live theatrical work—one designed especially for infant and very young spectator-participants. Drawing upon a wealth of early childhood research, she has been exploring how infants perceive and interact with symbols, color, gesture and metaphor.

We encourage you to keep an eye out for Ann Carlson’s developing work and also to invite you to the upcoming Artist Salons. The Clayman Institute looks forward to hosting Stanford Drama Artist-in-Residence Cherie Moraga discuss her new play this Fall.