For Michelle Ellsworth, Practice Makes … More Practice

For Michelle Ellsworth, Practice Makes … More Practice

The precise “choreography of labor” required to make this happen is part of why Ms. 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) Ms. Ellsworth puts into the box, and the absurd things she says and requests with unassuming politeness.

“I think I’m always making sad work,” Ms. 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, Ms. 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, Calif., 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 D.I.Y. inventiveness. At 7 or so, she saw “The Carol Burnett Show” and became enamored — not with Ms. Burnett, but with the campy Ernest Flatt Dancers. “That’s what I want to do with my life,” she told her mother.


Ms. Ellsworth at home. “I think I’m always making sad work,” she said, but her performance persona is definitely comic.

Nick Cote for The New York Times

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,” Ms. 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 Ms. 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,” Ms. Ellsworth said. “But when I came out of the box, I said, ‘Now I can tell you.’”

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