Rothko in Rome: an interview with Carolyn Carlson

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 composer 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
Participation: [email protected]



DIALOGUE WITH ROTHKO - Carolyn Carlson - photo © Laurent Paillier
DIALOGUE WITH ROTHKO – Carolyn Carlson – photo © Laurent Paillier


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