Dancer arrives at Stanford's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve

In collaboration with the biological preserve, the choreographer plans a set of historical tableaux for this winter.

Photo illustration by L.A. Cicero Color image of Ann Carlson on black and white background

In the tradition of tableaux vivants, choreographer Ann Carlson plans to reenact archival photographs where they were originally shot at Jasper Ridge.

Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve is known worldwide for its contributions to ecology, biology, geology and climate science. Now, add dance to the list.

It may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the field station, but this year, the preserve has picked the internationally respected choreographer Ann Carlson as its first visiting artist. The Stanford Arts Initiative-supported collaboration will encompass two undergraduate classes and culminate in a winter performance of Carlson's new work – a series of live-action recreations of historical Jasper Ridge photos.

As a haven of natural beauty in the South Bay, Jasper Ridge has seen its fair share of photographers and draftsmen over the years. And Philippe Cohen, the preserve's administrative director, has been interested in emphasizing the artistic significance of the site and its research for years.

"My experience with field researchers is that most have a strong aesthetic undercurrent," Cohen said. "They study where they study because they love it."

But Jasper Ridge had never officially played host to an artist until Cohen approached the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts with his proposal.

The resulting visiting artist position, made possible by a gift from Anthony Sun, chair of the San Francisco Asian Art Commission, and support from the Stanford Arts Initiative and the Drama Department, had only two stipulations attached to it: The proposed project had to undergo the same approval procedure as any research proposal in the preserve, and the project had to advance the mission of Jasper Ridge.

The chosen artist

Carlson's definition of dance goes far. She refers to herself as a movement-based artist and maintains that "all conscious movement is dance." In the past, her projects have included performances in unusual locations such as trains and barns, with choreographed encounters between non-dancers – lawyers, security officers, custodial staff – and live animals, including goldfish and fainting goats.

The work has garnered her a collection of high-profile awards, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Last year, Carlson was named a visiting artist at the Stanford Drama Department, where she continued her site-specific work with the campus-wide "Still Life with Decoy."

At Jasper Ridge, Carlson proposed extending a series of pieces she has presented at other locations. In the tradition of tableaux vivants – actors posing as paintings or photographs – she reenacts archival photographs at the locations where they were originally shot.

"There's a collision between the historical moment and the present," Carlson explained. "It speaks to the idea of the past pouring into the present moment." To heighten this effect, the actors wear grayscale costume and makeup, to imitate the effect of black-and-white photos.

At Jasper Ridge, this would mean positioning a variety of tableaux in view of the trails throughout the preserve and organizing tours from site to site.

The idea stemmed from Carlson's interest in the origins of photography – the history not of camera techniques, but of the human desire to make photographs.

"The desire to fix an image on paper was intertwined with man's relationship with the natural world," she explained. "It's connected to the notion of stewardship, which in turn is behind the existence of the preserve."

As Matthew Tiews, executive director of arts programs at Stanford, put it, "Her piece is coming at preservation from a very different angle than the rest of Jasper Ridge."

The details of the project aren't yet concrete – Carlson hopes to hammer these out over the course of her fall quarter classes Performance, History and Memory: The Jasper Ridge Project and Stillness in Action: The Body Out of Time. Students in the classes may be involved in the design, production and ultimately the performance of the final piece.

But enthusiasm is already running high at Jasper Ridge. "Her proposal just blew me out of the water," said Cohen. "My immediate reaction was I could live a thousand years and never dream up something like this."

The plan now presents the preserve with an interesting challenge. On the one hand, the project is meant to introduce Jasper Ridge to a wider audience of humanities students. On the other, the site remains a tightly regulated research facility.

"I thought it was pretty wild that a place that basically doesn't allow the public in unsupervised would want a performance artist," said Carlson.

Still, if the project goes well, it could lay out a model for a new tradition of Jasper Ridge–artist cooperation.

"It represents a lot of what we're trying to do with the Arts Initiative," said Tiews. "Bringing the arts to all areas of the university – even areas you absolutely would not expect."

Max McClure is an intern with the Stanford News Service.

Philippe Cohen, Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve: (650) 851-6814, philippe.cohen@stanford.edu

Matthew Tiews, Executive Director of Arts Programs: (650) 725-0186, mtiews@stanford.edu

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965 dstober@stanford.edu