On stage as well as off in her modest apartment opposite the Bois de Vincennes, American choreographer Carolyn Carlson is one of the rare modern dancers who still radiates a penetrating positive energy in everything she does, who dares to express what she calls “dark brightness” in her work and defends simplicity and purity in life and movement that emanate from the fires inside. In between her non-stop wanderings over the past 25 years – touring her solos “Blue Lady” and “Vu d’ici” (premiered last spring at the Théâtre de la Ville), teaching and guest choreographing for Europe’s leading dance companies, such as the Helsinki City Ballet – Paris has been home for Carlson, and she’s back for a few weeks to prepare for the premiere of “Sub Rosa,” her long-awaited piece created for Stockholm’s Cullberg Ballet, opening April 23 at the Théâtre de la Ville.
In her bright, cozy, California-style pied-à-terre, Carlson’s striking blue eyes suddenly light up as she sits at her dining room table casually clad in jeans, sipping coffee.
“There’s an addiction to violence in modern dance today,” she points out, “an addiction to a personal anguish the young choreographers have to express. Dancers don’t place any value on giving anymore, they don’t dare to be simple. Everything’s overintellectualized so nothing is communicated, or passes beyond the proscenium. But I think the public is tired of that. We live in dark times, but that’s all the more reason to give a message of hope and light. When people come up to me after I perform and say, ‘My God, I was moved, I really felt something from the heart,’ it convinces me that dance and theater will and must return to the poetic and to the sacred.”
Born in Oakland, California, Carlson performed and toured from 1966 to 1971 with Alwin Nikolais’ company, winning the prestigious best dancer award at the 1968 Paris International Dance Festival. For a few years in the mid-’70s she headed the iconoclastic Paris Opera Theatrical Research Group at the Opéra Garnier. Her group was disdainfully known as “those downstairs,” totally estranged from the ballet corps dancers in the upstairs studios, few of whom ever expressed any interest in the experimental, non-hierarchical improvisational work going on below.
Carlson created several brilliant works during that time, including “L’Or des Fous,” “Les fous d’or” and “Wind, Water, Sand, This and That and The Other.” In the ’80s she continued her approach toward total dance-theater “spectacles” with “Still Waters,” “Dark” and “Steppe,” where movement improvisation, electronic music, breathtaking lighting and visual effects all merge in a lyrical and magical blend. The Carlson trademark is dance in which humor, mystery, fantasy and the lyrical coexist, emphasizing the duality and constant metamorphosis in life. Years of performing at all the major European festivals and theaters finally led to an invitation to work from 1980 to 1985 at Venice’s prestigious Teatro La Fenice, where her beautiful and now classic “Blue Lady” solo brought her international acclaim and ensured her place as modern dance’s leading figure.
Armed with the training of Nikolais and Zen Buddhism, Carlson derives her main inspiration from poetry, philosophical writings and nature – gorgeous seascapes and skyscapes are always a must in her decor. When creating a choreography, she usually starts by writing poetry, sketching her movement ideas, which give her a sort of framework. Then music is composed to convey the moods or emotions she’s seeking; over the past 10 years she has worked primarily with composers René Aubry, Michel Portal and, more recently, Gabriel Yared. Then improvisation begins, intuition reigns and the piece slowly takes shape, each company member involved heart and soul in the process of perfecting the work all the way up to opening night.
“My work is organic and my teaching is based on my way of thinking, a lot on tai chi. Instead of standing vertical, the body is a link between heaven and earth and the arms stretch out into infinity. I choose my dancers based on who they are, that they’re tuned in to this philosophy, not on how technical they are. I’ve trained people who had never danced before – football players, architects, others – because I knew there was something there.”
Her way of working perplexes and perturbs a lot of dancers unused to spontaneity and being allowed any creative input. Thus her recent residency with the Cullberg Ballet in Stockholm was a real challenge.
“The dancers are gifted technically, but Mats Ek, their former director for 20 years, doesn’t improvise,” Carlson explained. “He choreographs step by step right down to where the little finger goes. So here I arrived and we started improvising. The first two weeks were a nightmare. It was almost total rejection at the start.”
Nevertheless, Carlson feels the experience was an important test for her and for them, and for “Sub Rosa” (Under the Rose), which explores the theme of time, its arbitrariness, how we relate to it in different cultures and the impossibility of escaping it. Like pictures from a family album, memories and dreams cross time’s borders in all directions and moods; the images used are drawn from the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Fernando Pessoa and Pablo Neruda. “Every day we worked on new poems I had found that went towards the light, towards an optimism. The first part is based on improvisations, the second part I choreographed. The company wanted set steps, so we ended up with a compromise, but they did a beautiful job.”
Now Carlson dreams of establishing a school. She has been waiting for over three years for city cultural officials to approve her project at the Cartoucherie in the Bois de Vincennes. She also dreams of being invited one day to perform in her homeland. Isadora Duncan, to whom she is often compared, waited a lifetime for both to happen; similarly, Carlson is living proof that true artistic genius is modest, patient and refreshingly unpretentious. She deserves to get her school and America surely will eventually recognize her as one of “its” great modern dance figures of this century.
“In the meantime,” she says, “it’s part of my karma to move around and work with other companies.” Next month, she’s off to Lausanne to work with Maurice Béjart, and then she’ll be choreographing a piece at the Opéra Bastille for Marie-Claude Pietrogalla, one of the few versatile and open-minded ballet “étoiles” whom she is always excited to work with.
In her natural and earnest way, Carlson says: “People who work with me are never the same afterwards. It’s not me, but the work. I know they’ll carry on the message, keep teaching others, and that’s what’s important because the dance itself is ephemeral. It’s only there once, then it’s gone, each time coming back different and renewed.”
Like the earth under the rose each spring…