Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Michelle Ellsworth: The Objectification of Things

Photo by Juan Carlos Salvatierra


March 20, 2009

Birth. Death. Resurrection. Those are just a few of the topics choreographer and media artist Michelle Ellsworth plowed through with her usual forceful wit and diligent sense of detail in The Objectification of Things at DiverseWorks this weekend. And did I mention that all of the above, you know, the birth, death and resurrection, happened to a hamburger? There's also sex and torture—to the burger that is.

Going to see an Ellsworth show is a bit like attending a rock concert in that the audience is full of fans that have dragged the innocent in tow. It's always fun to watch newbies to Ellsworthology try to get a footing in what she is doing. They chuckle silently, wondering if its polite to laugh. Oldsters howl before she opens her mouth and at the sight of the first electric drill.

This time around Ellsworth appears as a deity of sorts, a keeper of the sacred crypt of burgerdom, or burgerdoom as it turns out. She comes with two fabulous assistants, dancers Erika Randall and Jessica Meeker, who dance, sing, play guitar, and perform various busy work to pull the whole production off. An elaborate unveiling process reveals the object in question, at which point a silly song erupts evoking girl groups from the 1960s. Our hostess/goddess doesn't waste any time launching into both the history of the hamburger and its anatomical structure. Any confusion you had about the carbon in meat will be over.

Ellsworth dances between a few performance personae, from casual and apologetic tour guide, to ancient spell maker, to tortured lover of, you guessed it, the burger. Her mid-piece monologue froths with a tirade of lightening fast images, gutsy humor, Shakespearian drama, and a hilarious references to Woody Allen's 1994 film Bullets Over Broadway. In this version, the burger says, “Don't think, don't think.” The delivery, magnificent, and the dancing as wild and unruly as the language.

The piece builds to a fever after the burger dies and its time for the seven stages of grief, only here, there are eight because Elizabeth Kubler-Ross forgot blame, as an “oversight.” At the wheels of blame and explain, Ellsworth goes to town on such subjects as green house gases, methane in the ozone, and other assorted climate science, which she, for the most part, gets right. We know this because a scientist, Jeff Neff, sits in the audience and zaps her with a dog collar shock if she's wrong, just another highlight of her quaint wackiness.

No Ellsworth event is complete without a mighty contraption, and this one does not disappoint. Priscilla Cohan has designed a marvelous box of sorts that holds the holy pattie, doubles as mini stage, and finally as a tomb. Drills, hammers, and other assorted tools fly about as the thing morphs into its new purpose. Michael Theodore's snazzy 3D animation and Rick Silva's stop action create a striking contrast with the homemade quality of the set pieces.

Ellsworth layers on levels of ridiculousness that keep her brand of theater grounded in a fluid process. At no point do we know what might come next. Her pieces come at us more like graphic novels, with less violence (although there is that moment when the burger gets a deadly injection), full of mental switchbacks and unforeseen zaniness. And her adorableness, bordering on neurotic, makes it all the more fun to experience.

The piece concludes with the burger resurrection ascending heavenward, while Ellsworth buries herself with her beloved carbon-based object. The audience is left stunned by her charm, cleverness, and the boatload of climate facts now swirling about our heads. Who knew a burger could do all that?

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston.

Read Tedd Bale's review on CultureVulture here.

Read Molly Glentzer's review on Arts in Houston here.