Jun 172014
DIALOGUE WITH ROTHKO - Carolyn Carlson - photo © Yoshi Omori

Dia­logue with Rothko — Car­o­lyn Carlson — photo © Yoshi Omori

“It’s very dif­fi­cult to tour now in Italy with its money prob­lems,” Car­o­lyn Carlson tells me, which makes pro­du­cer Daniele Cipri­ani a brave man indeed: he is bring­ing her new piece Dia­logue with Rothko to Rome, with work­shops to follow.

Why Mark Rothko?

It star­ted as a com­mis­sion to do a short haiku or prose on a painter whose work can be seen in the Centre Georges Pomp­idou. I love Rothko, so I asked them if they had a Rothko paint­ing and they said yes. That paint­ing happened to be Black, Red over Black on Red. So I wrote 47 pages of prose about this painting.

Carlson often uses poetry as the start­ing point for her cre­ations, so it’s not a sur­prise that the book became a per­form­ance piece.

One of my pro­duc­tion man­agers said, “Why don’t you do a solo?” and that’s how this was born.

I keep say­ing that it will be the last solo, but prob­ably not. In my career I have danced about ten major solos, each of about an hour and a half. It’s part of my pas­sion because in a solo you share your solitude, that’s what I think solos are about, it’s a focus.

Carlson doesn’t like explain­ing her work,

I think dance should be open-ended. We try to put everything in boxes here in the West­ern world; that’s what I love about Japan, that everything is less cer­tain, you look at things for what they are.

But the leap from prose about an Amer­ican abstract painter to a dance piece is not an obvi­ous one.

Rothko’s work comes from the hands, which is why I have gloves in the piece. Of course he works with his heart and his mind too, but his media – paint applied with brushes – is con­trolled by the hands.

Maybe the most strik­ing aspect of Carlson’s cho­reo­graphic style is her focus on the upper body with exten­ded arms — “I think our arms are wings, they’re not chicken bones.” — and hands! Extraordin­ar­ily ver­sat­ile hands, form­ing every shape and mak­ing every com­bin­a­tion of move­ments con­ceiv­able, some­times seem­ing to cre­ate a motion blur with their deft­ness. Hands that speak.

Hands are uni­ver­sal: pray­ers, cere­mon­ies, revolu­tions… Hands sym­bol­ise dif­fer­ent ways of express­ing. Reli­gions in every coun­try are about the hands. The legs are very inter­est­ing, but if you start to lift your legs to a grand batte­ment, that’s not universal!

Maybe the Italian audi­ences notice her hand move­ments less as they use baroque hand ges­tures in every­day life.

Yes, we Amer­ic­ans talk a lot; we don’t use the hands so much!

Carlson often uses ori­ginal music for her work, and for Dia­logue with Rothko the  Jean-Paul Dessy is also the music’s sole per­former, play­ing his hyp­notic score on the ‘cello.

When I star­ted think­ing about Rothko I thought that Jean-Paul would be per­fect to do the music. So I con­tac­ted him and gave him the book, and he gave me many suggestions.

He came to Roubaix and we impro­vised together: it’s strange, some­times mys­tic, it’s at a very high level. I use impro­visa­tion a lot and then I find the work afterwards.

DIALOGUE WITH ROTHKO - Carolyn Carlson - photo © Laurent Paillier

DIALOGUE WITH ROTHKO — Car­o­lyn Carlson — photo © Laurent Paillier

Roubaix is home to the Centre choré­graph­ique national — Nord-Pas-de-Calais (Bal­let du Nord) which Carlson dir­ec­ted for ten years until the end of 2013.

Music came into her life in a major way when she met the com­poser René Aubry in 1978 who became a reg­u­lar col­lab­or­ator as well as her part­ner and the father of her son.

If I was a com­poser I’d write the same music as René. I love that he cre­ates an ambi­ence which might be mel­an­cholic or nos­tal­gic, but it’s also optimistic.

He’s doing the new work I’m doing for the Théâtre Chaillot.

Carlson moved The Car­o­lyn Carlson Com­pany to Paris in Janu­ary this year where it has taken up a res­id­ency until 2016 at the Théâtre National de Chail­lot.

The new work is called Now,

N-O-W… a big title! And René is just the per­son to do this.

It will go on at the begin­ning of Novem­ber 2014.

It’s based on La poétique de l’espace (The Poet­ics of Space) by Gaston Bachelard.

French philo­sopher Bachelard wrote the book in 1958. The appeal to Carlson may be explained by this quote taken from the book’s second chapter:

Some­times the house of the future is bet­ter built, lighter and lar­ger than all the houses of the past, so that the image of the dream house is opposed to that of the child­hood home…. a house that is final, one that stands in sym­met­rical rela­tion to the house we were born in, would lead to thoughts—serious, sad thoughts—and not to dreams. It is bet­ter to live in a state of imper­man­ence than in one of finality.

Carlson’s adher­ence to Zen philo­sophy matches per­fectly such sentiments,

My pieces live and die with the time they were made and the people who per­form them.

DIALOGUE WITH ROTHKO - Carolyn Carlson - photo © Laurent Paillier

DIALOGUE WITH ROTHKO — Car­o­lyn Carlson — photo © Laurent Paillier

She con­siders her pieces ‘works-in-progress’ which are never fixed. It explains why Carlson is drawn to this book by Bachelard: the free­dom of dreams and space.

It’s the third time I’ve used his books. He’s like a poet, and it’s a source of inspir­a­tion. He talks about being in the present, which I find an inter­est­ing sub­ject today: with all this use of inter­net and cell phones I don’t know how many people are really here… in the moment. Dance is actual, it’s done in time… in the moment.

In Now Carlson will not be dan­cing, but her cho­reo­graphy — or poésie visuelle, the term she prefers —  will per­formed by seven dan­cers from her com­pany. Carlson adores work­ing with her com­pany and rarely works out­side it.

I have such a fant­astic com­pany and good people that I work with.

How­ever, last year, Rus­sian bal­let star tracked her down. In an inter­view with the Los Angeles Times, Vish­neva said,

Car­o­lyn Carlson doesn’t work with clas­sical dan­cers in principle.

But she won her over and they cre­ated Woman in a Room.

When I came to her rehearsal room, I saw that on the huge table, which became my part­ner in this piece, she had spread pages with poetry by Arseny Tarkovsky… I ended up recit­ing his poetry in my show, which is totally incred­ible for me.

Carlson enjoyed the collaboration.

It was won­der­ful work­ing with Diana. This was some­thing! It was dif­fi­cult in the begin­ning because she’s a diva, every­body takes care of her, and she’s used to people giv­ing her steps.

As I’ve always been inspired by the film­maker Andrei Tarkovsky who used poems by his father, Arseny, for his works, I gave one of Arseny Tarkovsky’s poems to Diana and said, “Diana we’re going to work with this, with the films of Andrei Tarkovsky as inspir­a­tion.” Her eyes just opened, she loved it.

I said, “You have to under­stand this poem, and I want you to cre­ate with me.” No one had ever asked her that. It was a little dif­fi­cult in the begin­ning because she wanted me to do everything. When I said that we were going to impro­vise for a little bit, she looked at me and said, “I don’t impro­vise.” I said, “Of course you do, just read the poem and show me what it is.”

It was a long pro­cess for her to believe that she didn’t need just steps, but she could also give her own feel­ings about the work. Very interesting.

That ini­tial col­lab­or­a­tion let the one-minute piece for a Kérastase hair products commercial:

It wasn’t the first time she’d worked with a clas­sical bal­let star: for the Bien­nale in Venice in 1999 she cre­ated a piece for the Italian baller­ina .

She was very open and ‘dispon­ibile’. I think I cre­ated a very good piece for her. Her legs are amaz­ing. She has wide hips so her legs can just go up and up.

Carlson’s not par­tic­u­larly inter­ested in work­ing with ‘star’ dan­cers how­ever, but doesn’t rule out another ven­ture with Vishneva:

To tell you the truth, when Diana asked me to work with her I didn’t know who she was, so I had to look her up on the inter­net. Now we could work together again because she knows me now and I know her.

Carlson has had a long rela­tion­ship with Italy, and from 1980 for four years she was based at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice with the group Teatrodanza. It was dur­ing this time that she cre­ated her legendary solo piece Blue Lady. How­ever she hasn’t been in Italy with a full-scale work since Double Vis­ion at Milan’s in 2009.

Double Vis­ion was an aston­ish­ing work arising from a col­lab­or­a­tion with Elec­tronic Shadow, a French group foun­ded by archi­tect Naziha Mestaoui and mul­ti­me­dia cre­ator Yacine Aït Kaci. It used full-stage pro­jec­tions which fell on a series of ver­tical screens cap­able of mov­ing in and out to form vari­ous per­form­ance spaces. With use of pro­jec­ted human shad­ows and real shad­ows — Carlson all in black — this pre­cise and com­plex piece cre­ated the illu­sion of sev­eral inter­pret­ers on stage inter­act­ing with each other. Videos on the floor from over­head pro­ject­ors were reflec­ted to the audi­ence by an enorm­ous mir­ror tilted at 45 degrees.

We worked first on the video. When the video was com­pleted I worked dir­ectly with the video in the stu­dio with the cam­era over­head, which was inter­est­ing; I’d never done this before.

The fin­ished video there­fore dic­tated all the changes in the music and what I was doing. We had the mir­ror was moun­ted in rehears­als so that I could see the pro­jec­tions behind me.

The res­ult was memorizing.

Now, at 71, she finds her­self back in Italy, and alone again on stage. An intense hour and a half both phys­ic­ally and men­tally; how does she do it?

I do quite a lot of t’ai chi, and I’ve found another way of work­ing: you keep your centre together. Also I have a lot of pas­sion for what I do, and because I cho­reo­graph I know my own cap­ab­il­it­ies. I don’t lift my legs high in second any­more because that’s not possible!

I work from poetry, so when I step on stage I’m speak­ing with Rothko, I’m look­ing at the empty can­vas, and for me it’s such a joy to per­form the poetry, visual poetry… we’re not talk­ing about steps. Also I have Jean-Paul’s music which is transporting.

All the pre­ced­ing words are inter­est­ing and illu­min­at­ing, but, of course, the work’s the thing!

Dance is like music, you can­not explain it, you just have to see it, feel the energy, and build your own mes­sage… make your own poem.


3 July 2014 at 9pm
Dia­logue with Rothko
Villa Adri­ana, Tivoli – Rome
Villa Adri­ana Inter­na­tional Fest­ival
Tick­ets € 30
Box-office: Aud­it­or­ium Parco della Musica, Roma
Tele­phone book­ing: 892.982
4 July 2014 at 5.30pm
Con­fer­ence with Car­o­lyn Carlson 
Teatro di Villa Tor­lo­nia
Via Laz­zaro Spal­lan­zani, 5 Roma
Free admis­sion
4 –5 July 2014
Work­shop with  Car­o­lyn Carlson 
4 July from 12am until 5pm
5 July from 11am until 4pm



DIALOGUE WITH ROTHKO - Carolyn Carlson - photo © Laurent Paillier

DIALOGUE WITH ROTHKO — Car­o­lyn Carlson — photo © Laurent Paillier


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