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By Karyn Bauer
Double Vision. Photo by Electronic Shadow, Courtesy Montclair.
When France’s iconic choreographer Carolyn Carlson debuted Double Vision, she once again created a new visual arts experience. Her collaboration with explosive Franco-Belgian space and image designers Electronic Shadow opened the door to a universe where the frontiers of space and body are blurred and costumes act as screens for perpetually moving images. Little did she realize that this performance would also provide the key for her long-awaited return to her home country, the United States. In her first American stage appearance since 1997, Carlson will perform Double Vision this fall at Montclair State University’s adventurous Peak Performance series.
The piece had intrigued Jed Wheeler, Peak Performance’s executive director. “I have been hoping to bring Carolyn back for years,” he says from his New Jersey office, “and was particularly taken by the nature of this piece. There are times when you see, and there are times when you imagine what you see.”
“It is a gift to return,” says Carlson from her sun-drenched Paris home, her vibrant assistant and principal dancer Sara Orselli at her side. For Carlson, who has been living in Europe for 40 years, this is a revolutionary return to her roots, charged with the spirit of her mentor Alwin Nikolais.
Mystical and dreamlike, Carlson, 67, refers to her work not as dance, but as visual poetry. Her world was transformed in the 1960s when the San Francisco native discovered New York, Buddhism, and Nikolais. She followed him to Europe in 1971, where she was quickly embraced for her inimitable style and spiritual approach. Her choreography grew out of three essential elements: generosity, innocence, and love.
She became a principal choreographer at the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1974. There she created the Groupe de Recherches Théâtrales de L’Opéra de Paris, a groundbreaking, improvisational dance experience for the company. She then ran the Teatro La Fenice for four years and later the dance portion of the Venice Biennale. In Venice, she created her 1983 signature solo Blue Lady, recently performed by Tero Saarinen in Paris’ Palais de Chaillot Theater.
With her American spontaneity and optimism, she has transformed the dancers of the National Choreographic Centre Roubaix Nord-Pas de Calais in the French industrial city of Roubaix, where she has been artistic director since 2004. She also founded the innovative Atelier de Paris dance workshop in Vincennes park. Now, she will finally bring her hypnotic force and poetic grace to an American audience.
“Carolyn’s approach is very humanistic, nearly hypnotic at times,” says Orselli, who began training under Carlson’s watchful eye in Venice. “She comes in with poems, pictures, articles, photographs, and ideas to push us. At first we don’t know where to go, but then the improvisation kicks in and we become her universe.”
A prolific choreographer, her work still bears the imprint of Nikolais’ groundbreaking emphasis on improvisation. As Carlson says of Double Vision, “From the movement inside the video to the sounds of rotary printers and hospital breathing machines, I thought, This is Nik! What Electronic Shadow did with the technology. . . .so integrated in the work. Every step was related to the dance. He would have loved it!” —Karyn Bauer