For Michelle Ellsworth, Practice Makes … More Practice

Posted January 2, 2018 4:30 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Like many people over the past year or so, Michelle Ellsworth has often felt disoriented, as if the world had been turned upside down. But she is probably the only person who responded to that feeling by putting herself in a wooden wheel so that she can be rotated 360 degrees around the axis of her nose.

“By replicating the sensation, I can try to understand it,” she said last week, in a Skype interview from her home in Boulder, Colorado. A professor in the theater and dance department at the University of Colorado there, she is quick to say that she is “a dancer, for sure.” Yet her eccentric and marvelously original art defies easy categorization. One of her works, “Tifprabap.org,” is both a performance piece and a website for a new religion. For another, “Pythagodress,” she created a huge pentagonal costume of fabric and pipes that was part confessional booth, part giant uterus.

“A dance” is how she labels her latest work, which is to be performed Jan. 9 to 11 at the Invisible Dog Art Center in New York as part of American Realness, the annual genre-blurring festival of avant-garde performance. That there is no dancing, per se, in this dance isn’t out of the ordinary for American Realness, but ambivalence about performance is emphasized to an unusual degree in her work’s title: “The Rehearsal Artist.”

“My father’s sister was an extraordinary pianist,” Ellsworth explained. “She would practice and practice but she never wanted to perform. And her husband said: ‘You’re not a performance artist. You’re a rehearsal artist.'”

The title is a kind of self-identification for Ellsworth. Although her pieces tend to be solos or composed largely of her talking, she said she is much less interested in performing work than in making it. Nor does she ever like to consider her works finished. Imagining each performance as an additional rehearsal is a coping strategy, she said.

But there is much more going on in “The Rehearsal Artist” than its title might suggest. The piece is mostly in the form of a social science experiment. A human subject is strapped inside the wooden wheel, with his or her head encased in a box. At first, audience members can see only the inside of the box, as Ellsworth inserts her arms into it and sets up experiments — arranging dollhouse furniture, say, or a bag of crickets before her assistants slowly crank the wheel, exposing the contents of the box, face and all, to the effects of gravity and rotation, like clothes in a dryer.

The precise “choreography of labor” required to make this happen is part of why Ellsworth calls it a dance. Later, viewers witness similar experiments from the rear, and the change in perspective leads to realizations and surprises, even shocks. Many more elements are likely to provoke laughter: the odd objects (veggie hot dogs, Peeps) Ellsworth puts into the box and the absurd things she says and requests with unassuming politeness. “I think I’m always making sad work,” Ellsworth, 50, said in an email after we talked. But the persona of her performance pieces is definitely comic. As if trying to outrun high anxiety, her clipped speech rushes and doubles back, reeling and sliding around in the verbal equivalent of pratfalls. The continual sense of control failing is farcical, and endearing. The humor is so disarming that she can slip heavy themes (surveillance, death) past a viewer’s defenses.

In our Skype interview, Ellsworth behaved in character, which might be how she behaves all the time. In the middle of one story or another, she swerved to correct her own grammar or (“Oh no!”) to take back something she had said minutes before or to stop herself from saying something she maybe shouldn’t say, replacing that thought with the interjection “yep.” All the flashes of doubt that most people feel but keep inside: these she vocalized — involuntarily, it seemed — laughing at herself.

She laughed, for instance, at her origins as a dancer. She grew up in Palo Alto, California, one of four children in “a very, very Mormon family.” Her father was an inventor, a major influence on her work, with its many contraptions and do-it-yourself inventiveness. At 7 or so, she saw “The Carol Burnett Show” and became enamored — not with Burnett, but with the campy Ernest Flatt Dancers. “That’s what I want to do with my life,” she told her mother.

Her mother made her study ballet, which she did seriously, until an injury at 15 caused her to consider other career options. She traveled in Asia, studied Korean, and got married at 20. She and her then husband moved to New York, where she got back into dance. In an improvisation class in 1989, the instructor asked her to dance and speak at the same time.

“I felt like I was able to communicate for the first time in my life,” she said. “I wasn’t literate enough in verbal language or dance, but when I was able to combine them, I was almost able to say something.”

Soon she began making work: dancing and talking and using a slide projector. Her pieces are unusually thorough. If she tells her audience that she’s starting a religion, she needs a full hymnal even if she’s going to sing only one hymn. “I can’t lie,” she said. “I’m not an actor.”

The result is a huge imbalance between how much work she makes and how much she shows. About 10 years ago, her son, then 13, started making websites to offload the extra stuff. Now she uses the websites as improvisational scores for her live performances: hours upon hours of potential material for a 50-minute show. “Why would you want to watch me saying something I already said?” she said. “Because what I’m saying isn’t that interesting, but me trying to say something might be.”

For “The Rehearsal Artist,” Ellsworth considered taking herself out of the work altogether. But she found that she needed to be inside the box and wheel to judge her ideas. “When I put the sand and crickets in, it felt right, I knew the feeling, whereas when I filled it up with popcorn, it did not make my ovaries vibrate,” she said.

That reliance on her body as a source of information is one reason she considers herself a dancer. Recently, a student visited a rehearsal in which Ellsworth was planning to put herself inside the box with Rice Krispies. “And she started asking me questions, like, ‘Why are you doing this?,’ and I had no idea,” Ellsworth said. “But when I came out of the box, I said, ‘Now I can tell you.'”