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Wexner Presents World Premiere of Ann Carlson’s The Symphonic Body/Food

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Wexner Presents World Premiere of Ann Carlson’s The Symphonic Body/FoodPhotos by Toni Gauthier.
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The Wexner Center for the Arts caps a stunning performing arts season with a return appearance by choreographer Ann Carlson. Carlson brings The Symphonic Body/Food, the newest iteration in Carlson’s Symphonic Body series and the product of her latest Artist’s Residency Award. I spoke to Carlson by phone from New Jersey where she was premiering a different work.

Carlson’s previous residency in 1992 culminated with White, featuring a mix of the OSU School of Dance students, BalletMet professionals, non-dancers and elementary school students. The Symphonic Body/Food promises to be even more ambitious.

Carlson has staged Symphonic Body pieces in locations as disparate as UCLA and the Gallatin Valley of Montana. She described it as “[A] site adaptive work. Almost like a painting series, it has the same framework but is very different based on the people in it.” Carlson arrays the dancers in the style of an orchestra that she composes gestures for and conducts.

The Wexner commission planted the seed of The Symphonic Body/Food. That focus came in part based on the funding source, InFACT (Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation), an interdisciplinary focus at OSU investigating food resiliency. Carlson said, “It’s an interesting idea, two disciplines coming together and thinking about agriculture and the art-making process.”

Idea in place, Carlson set out to find collaborators and inspiration organically. She said, “I start with one person, in this case, Michelle Moskowitz Brown, the Executive Director at Local Matters. I asked her, ‘Who inspires you in the food system in Columbus?’ She gave me a long list of names and I went to them. I was so impressed and interested how much food activism [there is] and how many people are working around the issue of food equity.”

Carlson let the people invited grow out of those interconnected networks instead of trying to work through a preconceived checklist. “I was thinking about new categories of the food system — power, culture, citizenship — and working with this weave of categories. [The work] gathers itself in that way and then ideas start rolling: who are extreme consumers of food? Football players, maybe? Foodies? Anyone could be in this project, we all eat,” Carlson said with a laugh.

Once Carlson has a rapport with the people she’s chosen to take part, she observes them at work and creates a gestural portrait for what she calls “the physical music of this project.” She described the pieces coming together. “I conduct it live. It’s based on an improvisational score, a lot of it is decided in the moment. I think of those portraits as unwitting dances; I don’t label it as a dance because that could be intimidating to people. Part of the process is to invite people to consider their gestures of the everyday in a kind of dance. It invites exclusive attention on something you may not grasp in that moment.”

Carlson talked about the variety and improvisational spirit in her conduction practice and the project. “I might do a gesture that means ‘stand up and sit down.’ With 50 people doing that, it almost looks like piano keys. I might do this one gesture that looks like I’m outlining a sculptural bust that means ‘do your portrait.’ Or I have a gesture for two or three people to extend their portrait: the first gesture, then the first and second; and so on, so it extends their portrait into something longer. I have a gesture for ‘do three movements from your portrait you like.’”

One new element to The Symphonic Body/Food is Carnell Willoughby of Columbus’ fantastic vegan soul food purveyors Willowbeez Soulveg providing a meal for performers and the audience. Of this element of the piece, Carlson said, “He’ll be cooking live; real, sensual gestures, rather than a performance. I love the idea of being able to smell food. I have no idea how it’s going work.”

Before his time as one of our best-loved chefs, Willoughby was part of the first wave of hip-hop in Columbus, in the group SPIRIT.  Carlson joked about that performative background, “I might have to tone him down! Just cook!”

Attention to work and what brings people together marks Carlson’s body of work, spanning decades. From her breakthrough piece about attorneys through nuns and fly-fishers and gardeners. Carlson said those early works based on profession provided, “An interesting frame for thinking about capitalism and people. It became about creating a context for people to be themselves physically. The Symphonic Body is a natural outgrowth [of those works]; I thought it might be interesting to look at people through the framework of an institution.”

Though the ideas came from the commissioning bodies, Carlson’s attention to work is driven home in both the Montana version, The Symphonic Body/Water, and the Wex’s premiere of The Symphonic Body/Food. Her interest in invisible labor finds sharp relief in these two basic human needs which seem invisible in times of plenty and more prized and sought-after than anything when scarce.

While it tackles one of the most pressing issues of our time, Carlson has not made The Symphonic Body/Food as a didactic work. She said, “It doesn’t take on the issue in any very clear narrative, ‘Here’s what we ought to do to fix it,’ way. It just sort of brings people together who are contemplating and working toward a different kind of vision with some people [who are in it because they] just eat food.”

Carlson also summed up the underpinning of most art with, “What do we have but our attention? It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot.”
The Symphonic Body/Food has performances at 7 p.m. Friday, April 12, and Saturday, April 13, and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 14. For tickets and more info, visit wexarts.org/performing-arts/ann-carlson.

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