Getting Real #1: Michelle Ellsworth’s “The Rehearsal Artist” for American Realness

Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Years before the phrase became a rallying cry and popular protest sign, my kids and I were big fans of the They Might Be Giants song Science is Real. Each time I encounter choreographer Michelle Ellsworth’s work, I am reminded of the sentiment in the Brooklyn band’s Here Comes Science album – overwhelmingly and effusively witty and fanciful, but sneakily informative and subversive. In her latest work, at Invisible Dog Art Center as part of the 2018 American Realness Festival, Ellsworth delivers another stunning head trip, literally, as limited audiences encounter and become part of several fleeting social science experiments.

We are invited via a pre-show instructional video to don hairy, knee aprons and swab our mouths or fill a urine sample cup with warm water and a yellow powder. On Tuesday afternoon, with a group of 7 others, we were then brought through a door and peeked through small holes to see Ellsworth inside a room painting a stack of donuts with glaze dripping out of an IV. After rounding the corner and looking through another hole, we suddenly catch a 3rd leg attached to her body – the bizarre tableau goes further into the realm of questionable realities. As we find our seats before a circular one-way mirror, the sound of running feet can be heard and suddenly a hole at the top pops open and she frenetically requests that we participate in an “empathy” exercise of rubbing our faces, moving our eyes, opening our mouths, etc. And then, the center of the circle lights up and The Head appears. Another dancer is encased in a box and is inaudibly speaking while hands reach into the box and fill it with doll house miniatures, or foam filler, or other items. At times, the hands feed a syringe of liquid or an IV bag of baby blue fluids into the dancer’s mouth. Repeatedly the world is turned upside down as the circle is revealed to be a large wooden wheel that rotates to “test the viability” of the built environment. Descriptions of the work tell us the dancer is watching re-enactments of 2001: A Space Odyssey amidst this chaotic and sometimes distressing manipulation to their environment.

Once we are brought through yet another door, and seated behind the wheel, our group dons headphones and watchs another iteration of experiments while now listening to the running stream of instructions from Ellsworth to the dancer playing The Head and to her assistants. Another group of apparent audience members can be glimpsed through the one way glass, however, this new audience devolves into massages and music. Another reality explodes. Another perspective shifts. And, then we are sent to a corner station where each of us receives our own individualized Flipbook of the secretly, surveillance-style shot video of our “empathy exercise” while Ellsworth sets up another stop in this hallucinatory laboratory tour. One by one we see her alone in a room, head shaved, projecting an image of herself (with multiple short pigtails) out of a wooden bikini she wears onto a small circular screen. A final stop allows us to listen through headphones to Ellsworth instructing a group of performers -all shown as a series of heads on the wall – in various tasks that prime them for the work of performing as The Head.

As I walk out of the space, the entire process is about to begin for another group within minutes. The rush of activity behind walls and my impending departure feel like a jettisoning out of a space station, a hive of activity out of which I am no longer observing. The accumulation of experiences is delightful, Ellsworth’s manic charm is intoxicatingly warm and though there are mentions of death work and death prep, I carry no morbidity. I leave speechless and invigorated. I run into friends heading in and can only inarticulately say “Wow” to them with my jaw a little loose and my eyes a little dazed, but bright. There is little else on this planet that I can compare it to. It is dream state. It is a stream of many consciousnesses. The multiplicities and the mania evoke rapid firing synapses, like tapping into a collective brain, or perhaps, witnessing the projections of a heuristically programmed algorithmic intelligence with extra doses of humanity, unlike Space Odyssey’s lethal HAL. It is human experience – fraught and fantastical, singular and shared.

The Rehearsal Artist ran a feverish 8 shows a day Tues-Thu, but the rest of American Realness continues until Tuesday Jan 16.

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