Ann Carlson

Ann Carlson talks about Doggie Hamlet

Ann Carlson, Doggie Hamlet, 2018. Performance view, Vermont Shepherd Farm, Westminster, Vermont, September 2016. Photo: Kelly Fletcher.

The choreographer Ann Carlson has directed attorneys, undergraduates, and goats, and has staged her work in swimming pools, hotels, and aboard trains. In 2009, she discussed Meadowlark, her collaboration with the video artist Mary Ellen Strom, for this column. As reported by the New York Times, her latest performance, Doggie Hamlet, 2018, has been targeted by efforts to defund the National Endowment for the Arts. Here, Carlson talks about the work and its presentation at UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance at Will Rogers State Historic Park in Los Angeles, February 3–4, 2018.

DOGGIE HAMLET is a performance spectacle, but it borrows from dance, has theatrical elements, and includes aspects of competitive sheep herding trials. I think of the work as a 3-D pastoral poem, a living landscape painting. It’s an outdoor, site-specific work performed in a field. In LA, it will be on a polo field, a beautiful green expanse, a meadow surrounded by a fence. The audience will sit on hay bales around the fence, which will hold thirty sheep, three herding dogs, a shepherd, and five other human performers. 

The work emerges out of a novel called The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski, about a family who raises and trains working dogs in Wisconsin in the 1950s. The novel borrows from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book; Doggie Hamlet indirectly borrows from that borrowing. Doggie Hamlet itself doesn’t follow any exact prescribed narrative. The sheep, and the people, and the whole work emerged almost immediately in my mind. I started thinking about it, playing with it, and I met this sheep farmer in the weirdest way. How many shepherd/dog handler/sheep farmer/sculptor/scientists are there? I found a treasure in this person. Her name is Diane Cox, and she and her dogs perform in the work.

In Wroblewski’s novel, the dogs are trained as general working dogs, not for any specific task, but sheep herding kept coming to my mind as I read. I started thinking about what it would be like to build a work around the choreography of space and time that occurs around a sheep herding trial and that then occurs between the dog and the sheep. What we’re looking at, really, is a spatial prey-predator relationship. We see it spatially defined in this very particular way, in this kind of aesthetic frame where space is energized. We really see the space. 

Ann Carlson, Doggie Hamlet, 2017.

One of the major themes is instinct—both how animal instinct is alive in human beings and vice versa, the difference between animals and people, interspecies communication and sensitivity. There’s also this generational sense, of human beings moving through time, and I mean that in the long sense of the word. There are older and younger people performing. Is there a way to invite the viewer to really see the Earth’s surface as a performer? How can the Earth’s surface be visible instead of taken for granted?

The “musical” score takes in all the ambient sound—the sheep’s hooves on the ground, the dogs, and the sounds of the dog handler's commands—then it is “interrupted” by bird songs, the wind, people playing. The work is so much about stewardship. 

The dog’s instinct is tuned to move these sheep, not to kill them; it’s a delicate dance of communication between the shepherd, the dogs, the sheep, and the human performers. There’s a constant toggle between who is the prey and who is the predator in this work. People identify with the sheep and are also thrilled by the dogs. Perhaps it is akin to bipartisanship. We think we know what side we’re on all the time; perhaps Doggie Hamlet invites us to consider the nature of power.