Night of the dancing germs: the active culture of “Animolocules”

by Jeff Grygny

Photos by Sarah Larson

Germs are awesome. More scientifically called bacteria, protozoa, algae, and fungi, these single-celled beasties shocked the world when they were reported in the 17th Century by a Dutch cloth dealer named Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who first saw them in his hand-made microscope. Since then, biologists have made constant discoveries about “little animals,” as van Leeuwenhoek called them. Now we know they’re everywhere, and they don’t just make us sick; they support and bind together the fabric of life on earth, refreshing our atmosphere, nurturing forests through underground networks, and making our digestive systems work. Indeed, our entire bodies swarm with microbiomes, teeming ecosystems of countless invisible critters. I know— eww!

It’s a fascinating topic, but not one that instantly screams out for a interpretative dance. But that’s never stopped Quasimondo Physical Theater before. They’ve fearlessly engaged with difficult texts from Moby Dick to The Kama Sutra with humor, wit, and boundless creativity. They’re the quirkiest, most artistically daring theater company in town, and one of the smartest— if anyone could handle bacteria, they could. Alas, it’s unfortunate that in their latest show,  Animolocules, their tiny subjects prove too slippery to capture.

Quasimondo’s shows are never big on linear narrative: their esthetic preference is to riff on a theme, generating a series of sketches and dances with interweaving story-lines, some continuing characters, and often spectacular unifying visual motifs. Though you’re never quite sure what’s going on, you can usually find some kind of relational thread to follow through the semiotic labyrinth. Here, without an overarching concept, co-directors Jenni Reinke and Brian Rott  try a little of everything, from cheesy high-school science films, complete with bad audio and a nearly-unintelligibly-accented narrator, to patients being diagnosed for ailments we can only guess at, to a girl in a clear plastic bubble menaced by microbial invaders. We see an amoeba the size of a Volkswagen Beetle devour everything in its path,  dancers miming the actions of busy food-gathering protozoa, a seeming DNA clinic where patients are reconfigured to order, and an extremely tall violinist. Puppets by Andrew Parchman and Julia Teeguarden cover the spectrum from a frightening virus with dangly arms and a glowing squid-like carapace, to a long pink parasite that chases people around and wraps around their necks like a boa constrictor, to silly little hand puppets that are as cute as bacteria could be. Musical choices run the gamut from classical to grunge-pop; a lively soundtrack for an active culture.

Photos by Sarah Larson

Unfortunately, Animolocules often leaves us completely lost. Microorganisms don’t follow the rules of interaction out of which theater is normally made. Without having recognizable human emotions to ground us—or at least a casual familiarity with microbiology—we’re likely to find the constant activity more exhausting than exhilarating. For instance, if we don’t remember that van Leeuwenhoek’s instrument was a paddle-like affair you hold to your eye, you might miss what’s going on in Reinke’s warmly comic pantomime. We need a Virgil to guide us through this fantastic voyage.

Photos by Sarah Larson

There are some nice set pieces, as when the ensemble creates a slow-motion car crash complete with flying beverage cup and papers. Some of the dances with strange microbial props attain an abstract beauty, and the more successful vignettes feature relatable human characters. But too often, as when the performers wave their puppet germs around vaguely, we don’t get enough information to appreciate what’s happening. Animolocules is a brave experiment, and part of the adventure of theater is trying something new and seeing what happens. Rott, Reinke, and their collaborators should take some pride in tackling a nearly impossible subject—even if the culture never really grew on us.

Quasimondo Physical Theatre presents
Animolocules (Choreographia Microbiotica)

Playing through December 11th at Danceworks Studios