Local performance artist honored

Versatile CU professor awarded $50,000 grant

Steve Weishampel | Boulder Weekly

It’s unclear exactly what stood out in Michelle Ellsworth’s repertoire. There’s a lot to choose from.

United States Artists (USA) calls Ellsworth a “dancer, choreographer, video maker, writer, cartoonist and web designer,” to which one could add professor and co-director of CU Boulder’s theater and dance program.

Whatever the reason — and the Los Angeles nonprofit didn’t say — Ellsworth has been selected to receive a 2011 grant for her work, USA announced Dec. 5. The Boulder artist, performer and CU professor is among 50 artists who will receive an unrestricted fellowship of $50,000.

Even months after learning she’d won — she found out in September — Ellsworth seems bewildered by the award.

“I feel very humbled and grateful,” she says. “I’m very shocked.”

Those who know her work aren’t as surprised. To Lane Czaplinski, artistic director of the Seattle contemporary performing arts center On the Boards, Ellsworth’s versatility should not be understated. “If you call her a dance artist, it doesn’t begin to show the complexity of what she does,” Czaplinski says. “I really think she’s unique because she’s a crossmedia artist. Legitimately so.”

Czaplinski calls Ellsworth “one of the riskiest performance artists” in the U.S.

Ellsworth will return to On the Boards in March to perform for the third time, presenting a “mini-retrospective” of her work over the last several years, Czaplinski says.

The dance and performance project, called “Phone Homer,” will also include a strong dose of Ellsworth’s signature sense of humor.

“There aren’t many people who conduct  ritualistic sacrifices of hamburgers,” Czaplinski says of one of Ellsworth’s pieces, an ode and dance to a McDonald’s burger.

“She’s got such a big brain,” Czaplinski says. “I think the performances are a showcase for this big funny brain.” Ellsworth’s work tackles serious issues — Czaplinski names mortality, faith, philosophy and technology as prevalent themes — but usually includes a wry, sarcastic twist.

That shows even in her application for the USA grant.

“When they send you a letter telling you you’ve been nominated, they say, ‘We’ll give you a hundred bucks to apply,’” she says. “If they didn’t say that, I never would have applied, because I thought there’s no way I’ll ever get this. I thought I was in this for the hundred bucks.”

Even when she was told she’d won the award, Ellsworth had her doubts.

“When the president of US Artists called me … I asked repeatedly if they were sure that it was me that they wanted,” she says. “I said I’d be psyched about $5,000 and she said, ‘You can be 10 times happier.’” Czaplinski says he’s happy to see Ellsworth honored for her years of effort. “When I think about important artists who work outside the mainstream,” he says, “Michelle’s definitely at the top of the list.”

Czaplinski also applauded Ellsworth’s focus on teaching, which he’s witnessed as a guest lecturer in her classroom. “I wish I had had somebody like Michelle teaching me,” he says. “She’s a great teacher and you could see her students mirroring her passion and her intelligence.”

The money isn’t the only reason Ellsworth appreciates the award, she says.

“It’s not just about the money,” she says. “Someone’s saying, ‘I like what you’re doing. Do more.’”

Doing more might be difficult. “If I could buy sleep units with the money, that’s what I would do,” Ellsworth says — with a laugh, yes, but that doesn’t mean she’s kidding. She’s doing quite a lot already.

“A couple years ago, I committed myself to doing whatever the piece wanted,” she says. “At the end of the day, I could look myself in the mirror and say I did everything it asked. I try to be very devout about my pieces.”

This dedication means lots of late nights — remember, she’d trade the money for sleep if she could — but it also means producing art she’s proud of.

“I finally finished at 5 o’clock in the morning,” she says of a recent performance, “because it took so much time to keep responding to what it wanted. … I feel like my endurance is one of my best attributes.”

Since sleep units are still in research and development, Ellsworth does have backup plans for her award. “I’d like to help my son go to college,” she says. “And maybe put some into a retirement account.” She also intends to reward two forms of media she calls “standard collaborators for me:” public radio program Radiolab and The New York Times.

She did admit to treating herself to a rare extravagance. But it’s not exactly a new car — or even a used one.

“Oh, yeah, I spent a little money and got a haircut,” she says. “I’ve been cutting my own hair for five years.”

Ellsworth can relax. The home haircutting can stop now. But unless her next piece paradoxically calls for her to take her foot off the gas, she won’t be letting up anytime soon.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com