Arts + Culture

In this symphony, the ‘instruments’ are UCLA students, staff and faculty

Everyday movements become part of their ‘dance’

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UCLA students, staff and faculty in “The Symphonic Body UCLA”
Kathleen Schenck

Students, faculty and staff practice in preparation for the Nov. 21 performance of “The Symphonic Body UCLA” in Royce Hall. They were chosen to perform in the piece because they were identified by others as inspirational individuals. Watch the video by John Vande Wege below.

In Ann Carlson’s world, gesture — even the most mundane movement — is synonymous with dance. For almost a year, Carlson has been at UCLA observing and “collecting” the gestures of more than 100 students and employees at work across the campus. This is part of her process towards creating “The Symphonic Body UCLA,” a performance built entirely from these gestures.

This innovative performance project will culminate Saturday, Nov. 21, in two performances in Royce Hall.

Carlson is an award-winning artist who has been in residence at the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA (CAP UCLA) as well as guest faculty in the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance for the past year. Carlson serves as choreographer and conductor of this unique “orchestra,” made up of students, athletes, professors, drummers, designers, administrative staff from multiple departments, facilities workers, researchers, vice chancellors, coaches, librarians and more.

Kathleen Schenck
Award-winning artist Ann Carlson

Instead of instruments, this orchestra is comprised of individual “gestural portraits”—personal movement vocabularies created for each performer — based on Carlson’s observations of their everyday movements.

The impetus that drives “The Symphonic Body” is what Carlson calls “the movement of the movement itself.”

“The Symphonic Body performance traces a gesture from its functional utility to its abstraction, from the real to the symbolic, right before our eyes,” she explained.

This is something that Carlson, an unconventional performance creator, has explored often in her career. The seeds of “The Symphonic Body” were planted in the 1980s, when Carlson took up residence in an extremely unlikely dance environment — the offices of four young lawyers in New York. In 1986, she created a performance work that grew organically out of their workday movements, titled “Sloss, Kerr, Rosenberg & Moore.” Those lawyers, by the way, are still performing the piece more than 25 years later. 

As a large-scale, site-specific work, “The Symphonic Body” has taken place just once before — in May 2013 at Stanford University — after Carlson had spent a similar amount of time on that campus, observing and creating portraits of those workers.

“The Symphonic Body” project is what Carlson calls a “social sculpture,” bringing a segment of the UCLA community together through the lens of inspiration. The participants are identified and recruited by asking others to name people who inspire them on campus.

Carlson began with one participant, Meryl Friedman, director of education and community initiatives at CAP UCLA. She observed Friedman’s daily activities for several days and took extensive notes on the repetitive and idiosyncratic movements from her work life. Carlson then created a series of movements based on Friedman’s personal physical vocabulary and returned it to her in a sequence, which, when performed by Friedman, becomes a dance.

Carlson then asked Friedman for a list of people on campus who have inspired her. Carlson reached out to those suggested individuals and repeated the process to build a still-growing cast of nearly 100 performers. Among them are UCLA Vice Chancellor of External Affairs Rhea Turteltaub, Vice Chancellor and Chief Financial Officer Steve Olsen, professor of physics and astronomy Andrea Ghez, neurology researcher Noriko Ito, Director of Digital Humanities Annelie Rugg, the entire women’s gymnastics team and many more, representing a broad cross section of the people who study and work on campus.

Friedman said she was initially nervous that Carlson was going to create a dance out of her body language.

Friedman works in the arts, but even with her background in theater performance, she said performing in this work takes a huge amount of concentration.

“You are trying to remember your own portrait; you’re watching Ann for the cues about what you should do next, when you should stop and what’s coming next,” she said. “And then everyone else around you is doing something, which is completely different and completely fascinating. It’s also very interesting to see yourself through someone else [who’s] giving your movements back to you.”

Carlson said she knows it can feel vulnerable to allow a stranger — an art maker — to infiltrate a person’s work life for a time. But gradually the act of being witnessed in those seemingly mundane moments sitting in front of a computer actually enriches and heightens the motions themselves. 

That’s what “The Symphonic Body” is built from, calling attention to the mundane and making a dance out of it. Friedman’s concern over whether she would be “interesting” enough is a common refrain, albeit one that is quickly calmed and shed as participants become more comfortable with their portrait and find their own performance style within it, Carlson said.

“People all across the UCLA campus are saying yes,” she said. “Yes to inspiration, yes to being witnessed, yes to paying attention to the simple and complex gestural ‘dance’ that makes up our days.”

In May, Carlson was honored with the 2015 Doris Duke Artist Award. The award recognizes work in contemporary dance, jazz, theater and related interdisciplinary areas and aims to invest in the future of dedicated artists. It provides artists with a grant of $225,000-$275,000 to give them the freedom and resources to reach their full potential.

“There is much to say about Ann Carlson: her work, her approach to making her artwork and the generosity with which she creates performance,” said Kristy Edmunds, artistic and executive director of CAP UCLA. “Not only is what she makes extraordinary, but it leaves an indelible mark — one where everyone becomes permanently better because she was there.”

Tickets for "The Symphonic Body UCLA" are $15 for all UCLA students, faculty and staff and are available at cap.ucla.edu. Tickets for the general public are $19.

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