Arts & Culture

Q&A: Michelle Ellsworth brings concept of drones to dance

Multimedia performance links Ancient Greece, Guantanamo Bay and back of an iPhone 6

By
Contributing Writer
Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Michelle Ellsworth is a dancer by training and trade, but her artwork transcends this traditional medium, as it explores topics ranging from post-9/11 religion to feminism.

In her most recent piece, “Clytigation: State of Exception,” Ellsworth — associate professor of dance at the University of Colorado, Boulder — uses dance, ancient text, technology and physical structure to question war’s effects on legal protocols and human bodies. Ellsworth will perform “Clytigation” Oct. 28-29 in the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts.

Herald: Define “Clytigation” – What does the title mean? What does the piece mean?

Ellsworth: A while ago, I made a piece called ‘Found Homer’ where I remixed Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Iliad to be about food and sex, and I told it from Clytemnestra’s perspective to give a justification of why she ended up killing (her husband) Agamemnon. I wanted to pick up after she kills her husband, so Clytigation is the sequel.

For a number of different reasons, I really identify with Clytemnestra. We both have witnessed the impact of wars on legal protocols.

I am comparing how the Trojan War impacted Clytemnestra with how the post-9/11 wars have impacted legal protocol in the U.S. It’s about legal issues surrounding military commissions, Guantanamo, the use of torture, the use of surveillance, the use of drones.

So what does “Clytigation” look like?

You don’t see my body at all in the performance. I have what I call an interpersonal drone and so you see my interpersonal drone’s body. There are two boxes: He is in one, and I am in the other one telling him how to move. I have multiple computers in the box with me by which I am changing his environment.

I built these boxes and then spent hundreds of hundreds of hours in them. I wrote the whole piece and envisioned all the choreography while inside the box. I never went more than nine hours, but I spent time inside every day for months.

The box is just a mini-sound stage — it’s totally blue so I can key out different backgrounds. In the piece, I’m trying to complicate my identity and location, so I needed a micro sound stage to shift environments. It also feels like a sort of incarceration environment.

I think a lot about the tyranny of the rectangle — how many rectangles I have to interface with all the time, in the rectangular shape of the computer screen or the film screen or the stage. In “Clytigation,” I go inside of it rather than be placed on top of it.

What forms of expression does your work utilize? 

Dance is my first language as an artist. I studied history and philosophy at (New York University) but I got my MFA in dance at University of Colorado, Boulder, and I was a serious ballet dancer when I was young.  There’s a lot of video, a lot of physical computing interfaces, so it could be installation. Since there’s no script and I am changing it constantly, it kind of feels like performance art. It could go to any one of those categories.

Even though there is most always language in my work, I am not attached to language, and I am very suspicious of language, and so for me, dance decentralizes. I think of language as rhythm, or something else, but not so much content. I still have a lot of loyalty to the content residing in body.

Choreography is the safest place to put information, because the (National Security Agency) can’t touch it. National secrets would be safe if they were embedded in choreography. That’s why dance is so central to me.

Walk me through the process from idea to final product.

I have little shapes and little things that come to mind as I’m writing a grant ­— vacuum cleaners, Guantanamo Bay, Raymond Quenau and a choreography generator. It doesn’t sound very sophisticated, but then I have to figure out the relationships of these things, and it takes me a long time to get between these things, and philosophers and writers help me make the connections.

There’s a long period of time where I’m just making content: I just make a big buffet table. I have to make all of this content so I can believe what I’m doing. Then the content starts talking back to me, and then I just listen.

But I never try to get any solid meaning out of it. That’s one of the things about being a dancer: I could talk about my work in concrete ways, but it’s really just a lie. When I say, “Oh, Clytigation is…” it sounds like it’s intentional but it’s really much messier than that. And language is this disguise that we use to make it seem like its more solid.

What do you want your audience to be thinking about as they walk home?

I have very humble expectations. I hope I’m not wasting their time, and maybe they think about responsibility or pause or shift. I don’t have an agenda for sure.

This piece doesn’t have a solid message, but I guess I am asking, “What is the relationship between the space behind the back of a phone, a holding cell in Guantanamo Bay and Clytemnestra’s tomb in ancient Greece?” And I still don’t know. I can see how they are related, architecturally and emotionally, but I really don’t know. Sometimes I think if I were just a little smarter I would know. I feel like if I did know, I would just turn the answer into a bumper sticker.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.