Published: July 29, 2019 By

With her seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of ideas, Michelle Ellsworth leaps over creative boundaries as a dancer and choreographer, mixing technology, theater and even some woodworking into her multifaceted dances. 

Ellsworth is a professor and associate chair in the Department of Theatre and Dance and the interim director of the Center for Media Arts and Performance at CU  Boulder.

Recognized for her distinctive and compelling artistic works in contemporary dance, Ellsworth is a winner of a 2019 Doris Duke Artist Award, created by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. In 2015, she won the Doris Duke Impact Award. 

While her original art isn’t easily labeled, she collects material observed in everyday experiences for use in her work. Like contemplating the relationship between a straw and a glass of tea. Or how the process of weaving a basket becomes part of the function of the basket.

Ellsworth said she prefers making the work and rehearsing over performing. 

“My dopamine system rewards me easily for working,” she said. “I just want to rehearse. If I had a motto it would be ‘Don’t overthink; work.’”

Ellsworth’s creative journey was launched at age 7 when she told her mother she wanted to be a dancer after watching the Ernest Flatt Dancers on the Carol Burnett Show. After years of ballet, she stopped observing “orthodox ballet” when she was injured at 15. Her father was a neuropsychologist and an inventor—their garage was an amazing place for Ellsworth. He is the bridge between ballet and how her work looks now. 

She credits her colleagues at CU Boulder for encouraging her to experiment, take risks and to embrace the hybrid nature of her work. 

“CU has an unbelievably expansive definition of dance,” Ellsworth said. “The dance department is incredibly experimental with an exquisite commitment to understanding the complexity of contemporary performance, whereas many other dance programs are still mired in a European esthetic.”

She describes her dances as a three-dimensional textural phenomenon of a live body in real space. Because Ellsworth isn’t comfortable being on stage alone, she integrates technology into her performances, which serves as a companion so she’s not the center of attention. 

“It’s never done,” she said. “I never have closure on my work. I always keep adding to the work for that reason. I don’t want it to be done.”

By communicating a feeling or an experience kinesthetically, Ellsworth is working in a medium where she’s not translating thoughts or emotions into language. The centrality of the body is what keeps her so loyal to the term dance.

“Language for me is utterly inaccurate to describe what I’m thinking or experiencing,” she said. “Dance, as it intersects with technology, is uniquely equipped to communicate a level of subtlety and complexity that language can’t. Dance is the language, not a translation.“

Recognition for her work includes a Guggenheim Fellowship, NEFA National Dance Project grants, a Creative Capital Fellowship and three National Performance Network Creation Fund commissions.

Some of Ellsworth's major works include Preparation for the Obsolescence of the Y Chromosome, TIFPRABAP.Org, Phone Homer: Clytemnestra's Guide to Surveillance-Free Living, The Objectification of Things and Clytigation: State of Exception.

She created the Motivational Video Archive, a collection of more than 100 self-help videos she has been recording of herself since 1992. The accumulation of videos shows the creative evolution of her life.

“It was cool to allow myself to know that I’m not making work like anyone else and that it’s recognized,” she said. “For four nice hours I said to myself, ‘Well done, Ellsworth.’ And then I got back to work.”

“I believe the strength of her teaching lies in her steadfast devotion to the work she makes and the creative process she engages in. A prolific artist creating work at the intersection of a multitude of disciplines, she understands and continuously recommits herself to the kind of humility, vulnerability, courage, resourcefulness and risk-taking required to make art that moves the artist and audience into unknown territory.”

Laura Ann Samuelson
Second-year MFA candidate

“I find Professor Ellsworth’s classes the most artistically radical classes offered in the CU dance department. By introducing us to scholarly resources, artists and global performance art I have never heard of, Professor Ellsworth galvanizes me and other students to discover new worlds of research. My fellow grads and I are constantly discussing our meetings and classes with (her). Our perspectives are often turned upside down and inside out, which is what makes the graduate school experience an invaluable one.”

Danielle Garrison
MFA dance candidate, aerial dance track

“What is so valuable to me about Michelle is how she works to be there for the people she advises consistently and reliably. This is not only in the sense of helping the individual, but in positively influencing the culture of our body of graduate students in the arts.”

Kevin Sweet
PhD student
Emergent technologies and media art practices
College of Media, Communication and Information

See Ellsworth's work this fall in [UN] W.R.A.P. Dances That Don't Look Like Dances, running Sept. 13-15. Single tickets go on sale Aug. 19.

Tickets and Performance Details