Michelle Ellsworth claims that she really doesn't have a “thing" for science or technology. “I never use them unless I have to," quips the edgy dance artist, who has made a name for herself with her elaborate and witty one-woman performances.
It may not be her “thing," but she's made science a central ingredient in both the content and delivery of her work. Whether she is discussing the release of carbon molecules in The Burger Foundation or contemplating the end of men in Preparation for the Obsolescence of the Y Chromosome, Ellsworth's niche focus on science has made her a favorite on national festival circuits and has gained her a collection of loyal followers, along with a 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship.
“Artists and scientists are natural bedfellows," she says. “We are essentially trying to do the same thing—investigate, understand and challenge what is going on."
It's no wonder that Ellsworth's work is chock-full of strange stuff and scientific information—her father was a neurophysiologist and an inventor. A garage full of gadgets aroused her curiosity early on. “It was a marvel to me," recalls Ellsworth.
Though she trained in ballet in the Bay Area, she later learned that she could talk and dance at the same time in Sara Pearson's improvisation classes in New York City, and she's been doing both since. But it wasn't until The Objectification of Things, created with a scientist colleague at the University of Colorado in 2008, that she fully incorporated science. Yet, she admits, “it was always around even in the early work, mostly as a practice that felt like research."
If her performances have an on-edge, volatile feel to them, it's because they really are. Ellsworth does not rehearse in any traditional way, and thinks of her performances as real-time research of her hypotheses. In some pieces, she does not perform in a typical sense. For Clytigation: State of Exception, she runs video and sound cues from inside a box. “I have two computers in there and dozens of cables connecting me to all the physical computing devices in the room," explains Ellsworth. Its companion website, choreographygenerator.org, allows users to create their own dances with a click of the mouse.
In Clytigation, Ellsworth controls video and sound cues from a box onstage. Satchel Spencer, Courtesy Ellsworth
Most of her works come with their own website. “I never check to see how often they are visited. I feel very separate from them. I do love hearing about when someone completely untied to dance stumbles across them."
Today, her 21-year-old son, Satchel Spencer, builds all of her websites. She sees them as free-standing, and has no preference whether people visit before or after seeing her show, or ever. “I appreciate how websites give the viewer authorship and choreographic autonomy to decide order, rhythm and duration," she says.
Backstage, her warm-up involves cramming science facts. Ellsworth is dead-serious in the way scientific knowledge is communicated in her work, so much so that she's been known to wear a dog shock-collar during shows that zaps her if she gets anything wrong, thanks to a live scientist in the audience. “I don't want to mess around with the science," she says.
“Science has a tidiness that humans lack," Ellsworth explains. “I never want to be didactic. I really don't have an agenda. People can do their own math and draw their own conclusions. What I love about science is its nonpartisan quality. It's that absence of politics and emotion."
Today, she's working on The Rehearsal Artist, which she describes as part social-science experiment. “Live performance mostly feels like an obstacle course," Ellsworth says. “I'm just trying to survive and complete. Still, there's nothing like the exquisiteness of the live three-dimensional body."