Amy Ell’s Arthropodic Animal: Insecta is an original and nearly beautiful dance. I say “nearly” because Ell is interested in the underside of beauty. Her new work hails from deep inside the compost heap of dance making. As a Houston gardener, I am no stranger to the insect world. I’ve witnessed many an aphid gobble my English roses. Ell gets it right–the quiet, the careful crawling on leafy surfaces, the magnificent metamorphosing, and the shedding of temporary skins–it’s all there. Ell takes us on a human-as-insect adventure, where, for one hour, dancers rule the insect kingdom.
The dance opens with women dressed in white, perched high on a wall, completely still, as if in a cocoon stage. An enormous, slanted, climbing wall fills the backdrop of the DiverseWorks space completely. Footage of maggots projected on the wall entices the women to emerge from their stillness as they methodically move from perch to perch. Limbs like tentacles search and seek resting places with trancelike consistency. Situating the dance in the vertical plane plays expansive games with our perspective, creating an anti-gravity effect. Ell choreographs with the viewer’s line of sight in mind with distally generated limb motion. Eventually, the video projections becomes more abstract and the dancers pick up the pace, moving from handle to handle with increasing confidence.
There is a marvelous moment in the beginning sequence where the dancers look as if they are being dumped off the surface of a leaf. They fall down the wall, landing safely on the floor. A dense frenzy of movement erupts and the hive buzzes with mixture of wild and controlled movement. Ell uses a built-up of tension followed by a vibrant release of rich and luscious movement throughout the piece.
Costumed in white Amish-looking outfits, with red raccoon eyes, and hair in knots, braids, and tufts, the dancers exude a stark presence with piercing focus. Priscilla Nathan-Murphy rules the tribe in her bluesy solo commanding the space with precision and commitment. The ensemble– Bonnie Boykin, Penny Tschirhart, Alison Whitworth, Janie Carothers, Paola Georgudis, Madonna Heer, Lindsey McGill, and Erica Sandberg– danced with fierce intensity.
Lynne McCabe’s effective video footage grounded the work in the insect kingdom while Kris Phelp’s lighting created an eerie mode. The wall, designed and built by Tim Alyeska Young, served the dance well in creating a novel platform for movement.
Later in the piece the dancers change to black and wear bones and spikes in their hair, while some wear a complicated exoskeleton on their backs. Long periods of stillness allow time to gaze at the unfolding visuals. In the ending sequence Georgudis, wearing a queen’s tail, shuffles in slow motion towards her flock while her underlings disperse. The piece doesn’t really end, it just stops. It is as if we got a glimpse of some underworld workings of a subhuman kingdom and our viewing time is simply up.