Performance artist garners national honor

December 30, 2011 •

A University of Colorado Boulder dancer and performance artist has won a $50,000 USA Fellowship Grant, an award designed to put unrestricted grants “directly into the hands of America’s finest artists.”

Michelle Ellsworth, an assistant professor of theatre and dance at CU, says she’s honored, humbled and surprised by the award. Judging by the reviews she’s gotten in recent years, others were not taken off guard.

In early December, United States Artists named 50 new fellows in visual, performing, media and literary arts across the country. The awards have been distributed since 2006, providing $15 million to artists to use as they see fit.

Ellsworth, who holds a master of fine arts from CU-Boulder and who has taught here since 2000, has been getting rave reviews for her performance art across the nation.

“​Performance artist Ellsworth’s onstage persona is a fascinating mix of humility and daring, mockery and gentleness,” writes Westword’s Juliet Wittman. “She comes across as a deferential satirist, a playful deep thinker, someone who expresses serious concerns with effervescent humor, operating sideways and using movement, objects and a highly eccentric take on everyday concerns to make her point.”

“She’s brilliantly neurotic and writes text that is as pungent and funny to hear as it is to see,” wrote Ann Murphy of The Oakland Tribune.

Jennifer Dunning of The New York Times pronounced Ellsworth “smart, cute and profoundly irritating,” adding that her “nutty witticisms popped up continually.”

The Times was reviewing one of Ellsworth’s energetic and eclectic performances called The Institute for Potential Religious Artifacts, Beliefs and Procedures (or TIFPRABAB), the essence of which Ellsworth distilled on the web at

The Village Voice’s Elizabeth Zimmer added: “Her personality and the clear conceptual through-line of her story are quite winning.”

And The Dallas Morning News’ Margaret Putnam characterized Ellsworth’s work as a rare treat. “Every once in a while, a choreographer equally deft with words and movement appears and makes the hybrid form a delight.”

Though the awards were announced this month, Ellsworth learned that she’d won in September.

“I feel very humbled and grateful,” she told Boulder Weekly. “I’m very shocked.”

So shocked, in fact, that she repeatedly asked the president of United States Artists if there had been a mistake, she told the paper.

After the award, she told Westword that CU-Boulder has been a good fit for her. “I felt there was a community of experimentation here, and I felt sufficiently cloistered,” she said.

“My ability to listen to the pieces has become stronger and I’ve become more devout as an artist in terms of my commitment to the pieces. I really try to do everything they ask of me. When I make one of these pieces I’m not even asking myself if it sucks … I don’t know if a piece if going to suck or not, but I do know I’m doing everything I possibly can for it.”

Ellsworth’s performances tend to view quotidian things through an unconventional lens. “The Burger Foundation,” for instance, was “dedicated to the re-evaluation of the relationship between hamburgers and humans,” Ellsworth says in a video introduction.

“The Objectification of Things” was described as “part performance art, part ritual and part ethnography, illuminating the importance, impact, and fragile nature of the material world.”

This year, Ellsworth read a newspaper story reporting that the human Y chromosome was shedding genes at a rate that would ultimately lead to its obsolescence. The result was a performance called “Preparation for the Obsolescence of the Y Chromosome.”

Colorado Public Radio’s Ryan Warner asked Ellsworth if the “Y Chromosome” performance were comedy or drama:

“As an artist, I have no loyalty whatsoever to humor, but I have noticed that when I perform that people will laugh. I would say I’m never pursuing a comedic path. I find the story rather sad. This piece was made not only because I read that article in the Times but also because my friend’s father died, and I just started thinking about, ‘Oh, what’s that mean?’”

This month, Ellsworth emphasized her gratitude for “the profound support of the Department of Theatre and Dance, the ATLAS Institute, the college of Arts and Sciences, the Center for Humanities and the Arts and my many CU colleagues and collaborators.” Additionally, she said, the National Performance Network has been “key to the creation of many of my pieces over the last 15 years.”

Bud Coleman, associate professor and chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance, said students and faculty “join in the celebration” of Ellsworth’s fellowship.

“To receive this award in the same year as such dance luminaries at Liz Lerman, Lar Lubovitch and Donald Byrd is a powerful statement that the peer-review panel recognizes that not all cutting-edge solo dance is created by artists living in New York City,” Coleman said.

“We are pleased to see that Professor Ellsworth is getting national attention for what we have known for a long time: Her work is original, funny, intelligent, thought-provoking and always engaging. Brava!”