Saturday, February 26, 2005

REVIEW: Dances to Take the Edge Off: Michelle Ellsworth at Diverseworks

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Photo by Robert Shannon

Every time Michelle Ellsworth hits the DiverseWorks stage I brace myself. Mix an untamed imagination with intellectual grit and you get Ellsworth. This time around she takes on the sorry state of the world with a pair of works that has “B” students, (such as myself), quaking in our boots. ED: The Word Made Dress & The Monkey Saddle establish Ellsworth as a leading dance theater performance artist. She is also mighty handy on stage with a wrench.

Ellsworth appears on stage wearing an ill-fitting Victorian dress with a curious pentagonal base. Once she begins to speak a mile-a-minute, the race is off. The dress, named ED, serves as Ellsworth’s solution to the world’s current state of dismal affairs. The usual stuff, religion, democracy, and psychology, just wasn’t up to the job. Ergo ED, a problem-solving dress, can do the trick. And it does.

Ellsworth educates us on all of ED’s “looks,” which include your basic pentagon (it’s organic, of course) and a gigantic uterus, modeled after Temple Grandin’s research into more humane meat slaughtering. ED’s bustle hides a set of lockers that store such necessities as a bucket of lard (you know, for snacks), fake surveillance equipment, and other odd and useless choices including several decoy devices. Never trust a root beer can around Ellsworth.

No dress is complete without a little Greek myth, so ED sports a little Homerian puppet show. Ellsworth builds the dress with a furious passion, all while explaining ED’s features. It’s exhausting, exuberating, and so ridiculous, it works. Ellsworth is so adept at manipulating ED you start believing her. She builds and talks with such lightening speed that ED’s resulting “looks” hit you like a Mack truck. ED’s humor jabs at your brain with a desperate edge.

In The Monkey Saddle Ellsworth takes on religion by inventing one of her own. Clad in a futuristic jumpsuit wired to a computer that interprets her every move, she can summon a hymn or peak experience or one of any number of “precepts.” I am not entirely sure the audience figured out exactly what she was doing with the suit. Her movement actually generates what happens next through some hefty technical programming.

Ellsworth takes a darker track in this piece; she feels and moves with more desperation. Religion tends to do that around these parts. The level of absurdness moves deeper as well. In the end she brings us all around with a sing-along called “keep your dominator low.”

Her team of excellent collaborators, Michael Theodore (music, animation & sensor programming), Priscilla Cohan (set design), and Janice Benning Lacek (costumes) provide a vivid frame for Ellsworth’s work.

Several times during the course of both pieces Ellsworth states her reasoning for her odd behavior, “you know, to take the edge off.” Instead, they remind us of the edge we are now on. Throughout, the anxiety is high, the humor, vivid, and the wild flux of ideas, intoxicating.