Published: Oct. 29, 2020

Michelle Ellsworth, college professor of distinction, is an artist whose work ‘defies easy categorization,’ except that it is important, critics say

Michelle Ellsworth is a dancer first and foremost, but her art encompasses more than dance. As The New York Times noted in 2018, “her eccentric and marvelously original art defies easy categorization.” 

But one categorization is beyond dispute: Ellsworth is one of four faculty members at the University of Colorado Boulder to be named a 2020 College Professor of Distinction. 

Michelle Ellsworth

At the top of the page: Max Bernstein, Laura Kim, Ondine Geary, and Michelle Ellsworth in the Intimacy Machine in The Post Social Network by Michelle Ellsworth. Photo by Ryan Seelig. Above: Michelle Ellsworth

The other winners are Elspeth Dusinberre of classics, and Pieter Johnson and Katharine N. Suding of ecology and evolutionary biology. 

Citing her discomfort with being in a figurative spotlight, Ellsworth hesitated to speak at length, but in response to the question of how she responded to winning this award, she gave this response:

“I got that award? No way. How? Amazing. Grateful, unworthy, tired, pleased, honored, and totally sure I wouldn't have gotten it without the support of my colleagues.”

Erika Randall, a fellow dancer and chair of the CU Boulder Department of Theatre and Dance, had a bit more to say about Ellsworth’s art:

“Your first impulse might be to read Ellsworth’s work as silly or irreverent, but it is in fact a deeply sophisticated social critique of contemporary values,” Randall said. “With the COVID 19 crisis, the prescience of her work is even more obvious.”  

“She challenges our assumptions about capacity, consumption, community, confinement and dance. Ellsworth is an interdisciplinary bender of forms. More than any other dance artist working in the United States (and perhaps the world), she has exploded what we think of as dance and what we think a dance can do.”

Randall said evidence of Ellsworth’s “reach and transformative impact” on the art form is the fact that many of her works don’t even look like “dance,” and involve deep collaborations with scientists and computer scientists. 

Ellsworth has somehow squeezed an unreasonable amount of late capitalism’s extant anxieties into one of the most affecting performances I’ve seen in years."

“In all of her work, the centrality of the body is inescapable, and its impact on its environment and the environment's impact on it ... are always at the core.”

In the COVID-19 era, Ellsworth’s work has drawn a spike in attention. Her “Please Consider” made nine years ago and focused on Skype tips, has garnered 6,000 views because of its relevance in the age of Zoom, Randall said. 

A listing of awards that Ellsworth has won runs more than four pages on her curriculum vitae, and ranges from a prestigious Doris Duke Artist Award to being a co-principal investigator on a $1.1 million National Science Foundation grant for “Integrating Physical Computing and Data Science in Movement Based Learning.”

In a 2019 review of Ellsworth’s work “The Rehearsal Artist,” a critic in Art in America offered this assessment: 

“Ellsworth has somehow squeezed an unreasonable amount of late capitalism’s extant anxieties into one of the most affecting performances I’ve seen in years. ‘The Rehearsal Artist’ made visible a century’s worth of social accelerants stoking the Anthropocene, all in the time it takes most of us to get to our jobs. It is—I say this with sincerity—an important work.”

Her newest work, “Evidence of Labor” is described this way: “Ellsworth works with motion capture and AI or machine learning to make a work that functions live or on-line where Ellsworth interacts in real-time with a GAN generated version of themself (a GAN is a generative adversarial network, which is a kind of artificial intelligence that learns how to independently create content).” 

The work is described as part critique of computer science (can AI really capture the nature of a fugitive dance?) and part immortality machine or mortality cure (can a GAN keep a dancer dancing indefinitely?).” 

Ellsworth says, “Evidence of Labor” takes her long-standing collaboration with computer science “into the realm of machine learning and ontological speculation.”

For more on Michelle Ellsworth, visit her website

The newly named professors of distinction will give presentations on their research and scholarly work in spring 2021. Details about those presentations are coming.