One of the things I admire about Ann Carlson is that she doesn’t miscalculate her size – the size of her talent, the size of her enterprise. She’s been creating dance-theater pieces for fourteen years. She shows her intimate, maverick work – which explores unusual aspects of being alive – at sites that are not too grand for what she does, though they’re well respected on the contemporary-dance circuit. I saw her most recently at P.S. 122.
Carlson does not have a big budget. She does not team up with superstars from the realms of music, drama, painting, photography, fashion, or what-have-you to inflate her impact. She is not part of the publicity machine. Calmly and deliberately, she goes about her business, following her instincts, making the work it’s in her to make. For all these reasons, she’ll probably never be famous, and so her work will be spared the corrosive effects of pursuing and maintaining fame, so evident in most of the art we’re served up these days.
Partly because of her isolation from the big time, Carlson makes a lot of mistakes. Some of them seem just dumb, the result of preferring innocence to common knowledge of the trade. Others have the endearing awkwardness that accompanies a child’s efforts at putting on a show. And in the midst of the bumbling come piercing or glowing epiphanies. The P.S. 122 program, three linked solos surrounded by personal chitchat, was typical of the mix.
The talking was the big mistake on this occasion. Carlson surrounded her set pieces, Grass, Bird, and Rodeo, with informal patter directed to the audience – which was invited to respond, and did, if unrewardingly – concerning the events, thoughts, and feelings that generated each solo. The commentary, delivered none too coherently while Carlson fumbled her way through costume changes, befogged the work and, worse, encouraged doubt that a viewer would properly understand these solos without their being “explained.”
Grass, for which Carlson wears a business suit cut from green Astroturf, remains a little obscure, though it offers visual insights into the mythic American landscape of clear, wide horizons. In Bird, Carlson dresses up in her own voluptuous flesh, silver sequins, and white feathers to vamp as a Vegas showgirl. All shaky bravado, this character grinds out her raunchy routine, doing her damnedest to meet expectations. Suddenly she trips, staggers to her knees, and, irreparably maimed, metamorphoses into Fokine’s dying swan. The match between the desperately plucky performer of tawdry entertainment and the stricken bird-soul of classical dance is a keen imaginative leap that requires no explication whatever.
The strongest and most vivid of the solos, Rodeo, reincarnates Carlson as a loud and lusty rodeo announcer and some of the attractions she introduces in a country-western twang – a virginal gospel singer, an exhibition roper. The catalyst for the piece, as Carlson instructed us in advance, was a spell of aphasia resulting from an accident she sustained while studying rodeo skills. The solo itself transforms that aphasia into a metaphor for the human condition – our occasional petrifying sensation (or chronic subconscious anxiety) that we’ve lost our grip on who we are and what the hell we’re doing here. I thought it a pity Carlson didn’t trust her work to make that clear, but maybe she’s dependent on the explicit; she performs Rodeo in a shallow ten-by-twelve-foot container filled with genuine, sweet-smelling earth.