GUILFORD — In the course of her long career, Ann Carlson, an award-winning interdisciplinary choreographer, has mined daily movement and gestures to create choreography that expands the vocabulary of dance.
As guest artist at Stanford University from 2010 to 2013, Carlson found inspiration for her performance series, "The Symphonic Body," a performance/orchestral work composed entirely of gestures. Additionally, she has originated performances that combine dancers, music, and animals. Over the years, she has worked with cats, cows, dogs, fish, goats, and horses.
Vermont Performance Lab, located in Guilford, provides six to 10 artist residencies a year that support various stages of the creative process from research and development to fully realized productions.
Carlson has spent two weeks this September in residence at VPL developing her piece, "Doggie Hamlet," in collaboration with Yesenia and David Major of Vermont Shepherd Farm in Westminster West. The piece, choreographed and directed by Carlson, is performed outdoors and features "performances by a flock of sheep; three working dogs — Wull, Monk and Lala — and dog handler Diane Cox; dancers Diane Frank, Imre Hunter, Peter Schmitz, and Ryan Tacata; with additional performances by Vermont-based cellists Jake Charkey, Tim Merton, and Jennifer Morsches," according to the website.
"The piece is loosely inspired by Shakespeare's 'Hamlet,' Kipling's 'The Jungle Book,' and 'The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,' a novel by David Wroblewski," said Sara Coffey, founder and director of VPL. "It's not a narrative. It's a three-dimensional pastoral poem. Carlson explores instinct, sentience, attachment, and loss."
Submitted photoAnn Carlson is a dancer, choreographer, and performance artist.
Submitted photo Ann Carlson is a dancer, choreographer, and performance artist.
The artfulness of the way the border collies move the sheep creates a choreography that Carlson combines with the human dancers, Coffey said. Carlson and Cox have collaborated on this piece before. Cox has a sheep farm in Andover, New York. One of the challenges this time is working with a new flock of 25 sheep and a new landscape.
This project will likely move on to other venues, Coffey said, such as Central Park in New York City, as well as Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
"I've followed Carlson's work for 15 or 20 years," Coffey said. "Her work is interesting and experimental. I've been talking with her about this project for two years. Given the farming community here, and the diminishing farm history, it seemed a beautiful opportunity. We had to find the right farm, farmer, and sheep. Ultimately, we approached the Majors about the possibility of working with their sheep. He's an interesting and open guy, and his wife loves dance, so they invited us to perform on their farm.
"Also, the experience will include live music," Coffey continued. "It's such a rich musical community here. So, we have local sheep, local music, and a local farm."
Coffey, who had been working with independent dance companies in New York City, founded VPL in 2006. She envisioned a new kind of laboratory, an incubator "with a mission to support the development of new performance works, and to connect creation and presentation of contemporary performance with residents of the communities we serve," according to the website.
"Other artist retreats have artists working alone in an isolated way," Coffey said. "We want to foster connections between the work and the community, (in this case) getting people onto a farm. We want people to come and engage with the artists. We want to demystify contemporary dance and bring it out of privileged spaces," adding by way of example that part of the 2008 project, "Music for Trains," was performed on covered bridges.
Many times artists come to VPL residencies out of urban areas, Coffey said.
"Being closer to nature is often a powerful experience for them," she said. "It unsettles this idea that 'nothing happens outside of cities.' I like connecting the artists with people here who are doing interesting things."
Usually one artist is in residency at a time, Coffey said.
"I try to keep it diverse in form, culture, and ethnicity," she said. "Often the work is driven by an idea, a philosophy, or a question. On a small scale, we can find people and make authentic connections."
VPL will present two preview performances of "Doggie Hamlet" on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 16 and 17, at 5 p.m. at the Vermont Shepherd Farm in Westminster West. For ticket information, visit vermontperformancelab.org/events. Audience members are encouraged to wear comfortable shoes and to dress for the outdoors. In addition, due to the sensitive nature of the performance, no dogs are allowed at the performance site. Any patron who brings a dog will not be permitted on site.
This VPL residency and the preview performances are made possible with support from the National Dance Project of the New England Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and VPL's Creation Fund donors. This event is part of Vermont Arts 2016, a project of the Vermont Arts Council.