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Artist and Choreographer Ann Carlson Reflects on Dancing with Dogs and 'The Symphonic Body'

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This article was originally published Sept. 30, 2020 by UCLA's School of the Arts and Architecture.

Ann Carlson sits in front of a black background. | Courtesy of UCLA
Ann Carlson sits in front of a black background. | Courtesy of UCLA

The interdisciplinary artist and choreographer Ann Carlson views dance as any conscious movement in time and space. That expansive definition has led her to work with a wide range of participants – lawyers, basketball players, nuns, fly fishermen, college administrators, and a variety of animals – to turn their unconscious gestures into choreographed movements.

She first arrived at UCLA in 2015 when the Center for the Art of Performance commissioned her to orchestrate a dance, part of a series of works she calls “The Symphonic Body,” and stayed on as a teacher in the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance.

She spoke to Works In Progress about her journey to developing her unorthodox approach to dance; her process of creating these large-scale works; and the idea of presence, a topic she’ll be exploring as part of “10 Questions: Reckoning,” the arts-driven initiative that brings UCLA faculty from across campus together to examine ten essential questions.

‘Dance is All Conscious Movement’

Carlson has a vivid memory of being 12-years-old and going to see a lecture-demonstration by dancer and choreographer Murray Louis, a pioneer of American modern dance. 

“He happened to say that ‘you can dance doing the dishes,’” she said. “So I was exposed right away to the notion that dance is all conscious movement.”

Carlson continued her exploration of dance as an undergraduate student at the University of Utah, where she recruited members of the track and field team to be part of her dances.

“I felt like I had it big kinetic canvas to work on,” she said. “I had teachers that were supportive, even if they were scratching their heads.”

The young choreographer made a splash in 1986 with a performance that featured four young New York city lawyers, called “Sloss, Kerr, Rosenberg & Moore.” The piece was inspired by a repeating dream Carlson had of four men in suits with their shoes glued to the floor. She found four men who agreed to let her observe them in their law offices.

The choreography, as well as repeated vocal phrases, were drawn from their movements at work. The men continued to perform the work over the subsequent decades, including at one of their weddings.

Developing “The Symphonic Body”

That piece was the first of a long series of works that evolved into “The Symphonic Body.” 

“I had many years, a couple of decades, of working with all different kinds of people and watching their gestures,” she said. That list includes “basketball players, nuns, development directors, curators, teachers, a mother and her daughter” and many other participants.

Carlson said she often draws inspiration from fellow Chicagoan and oral historian Studs Terkel, author of “Working” and other books documenting the lives of everyday people.

Carlson first performed “The Symphonic Body” as a vising artist at Stanford University. A university, she said is “like a small city, where you’ve got tree trimmers, professors, scientists, students,” offering a range of gestures that “was like a fantastic buffet.”

Ann Carlson teaching in the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance. | Courtesy of UCLA
Ann Carlson teaching in the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance. | Courtesy of UCLA

Rather than post an open casting call, Carlson began with one person who she observed for a day, noting their unwitting gestures. She then asked that person to suggest names of six people who inspire them, whether they know them or not. Carlson would then approach those people, gradually drawing a web of connections across the university.

“I would re-sequence their gestures and make a 3-minute portrait for each person,” she explained.

Carlson said she conducts the participants as though they were musicians, pointing at various people to begin their choreographed gestures.

“The Symphonic Body” has been performed in several places, each time drawing from members of the community in which it’s performed. One iteration in Columbus, Ohio focused on food activism and included chefs, hunters, gardeners, even breastfeeding mothers. Carlson shared that someone even cooked during the performance and then fed the audience.

In Montana, Carlson was invited by the nonprofit Mountain Time Arts to convene a performance around the theme of water. They got drenched with rain during their outdoor final performance. She also worked with members of the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes, who came up with the idea of drawing gestures about water from Plains Indian Sign Language.

Carlson said she hopes these performances get people to think differently about the nature of work, especially hidden or unseen labor.

“It’s an invitation to take up residence in your body differently. And people will kind of rib me that, ‘Ann, I can’t pick up my phone the same way again. Because I’ve done it so many times, and now it’s been sort of framed and alerted to and attended to in a different way,’” she said. “It’s an invitation to have a different kind of presence and to be present in a different way.”

The Symphonic Body/UCLA. | Photo by Calista Lyon, Courtesy of UCLA
The Symphonic Body/UCLA. | Photo by Calista Lyon, Courtesy of UCLA

Dancing with an Animal Cast

Carlson’s performances have times also incorporated animals. A piece called “The Dog Inside The Man Inside” from a series called “Animals” includes a real live dog, as well as a chair, a TV set and a white picket fence. 

A recent project called “Doggie Hamlet,” based on the sport of competitive sheep herding includes a flock of sheep, four herding dogs and five human performers. The work was performed at Will Rogers State Historic Park in Pacific Palisades in 2018.

“I had started thinking about building a work that could be outdoors and that could take up the issue of stewardship of the land in a small way, and work with the prey predator relationship, which is what is going on with herding dogs and sheep,” Carlson said.

Truck Dances

As the pandemic took shape, Carlson’s plans were thrown into disarray. Like many in the dance world, a calendar booked two years ahead suddenly became blank. However, she did have one platform she could use: the cargo bed of her Toyota Tacoma. She began making custom dances for friends; the first was a birthday gift for a friend. Later, she began incorporating aspects of other dances, such as a grass suit and a living room rug. The audiences were small and physically distanced.

“So I just adapted work for the back of my truck,” she said. “It was a way to probably calm myself down and just stay connected with live performance.”

Soon, she began collaborating with friends like folk singer Phranc and dancer Ros Warby. 

Carlson has also been leading rehearsals via Zoom with a dance company in Switzerland and mentoring high school dance students in Florida.

“So, keeping busy and I’m trying to do as much as I can, from this chair and this phone and this computer and my truck,” she said.

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A Matter of Presence

Carlson will be a panelist on the “10 Questions” event on Oct. 5 organized around the question, what is presence? She said tt’s a topic she thinks a lot about, especially as “The Symphonic Body” requires her to carefully observe the workday gestures of her participants.

“I was kind of trained to be really present,” she noted, since dancers have to focus on their movements to avoid injury. She said she also thinks about what it will mean to be present when the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

“Will we pull just from our historical experience about being present with each other, or will it be a new savored whole thing?” she wondered.

The third season of 10 Questions launches Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. with the question, What is Presence? You can register for 10 Questions and learn more about the program here.

Top Image: The Symphonic Body/UCLA. | Photo by Calista Lyon, Courtesy of UCLA

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