22 Jun

I caught up with Amy Ell for lunch before her two big flights. And since Amy is a vegan, not to mention one of the healthiest people I know – she once boasted on my radio show she could bench-press me, and if it had been TV, she’d have had to try it on the spot – we met at the new Ruggles Green. There, amid Chef Bruce Molzan’s curtsies and bows to environmental rationality, we talked about the two ways she’d be heading up into the air in the next 24 hours.

The next day, the dancer-choreographer (often called the “dancer’s dancer” for her popularity over the years performing with other companies), would climb on a plane at IAH and fly off to London. Like so much in Amy’s life, the weeks that followed would be a mixture of teaching and learning – mostly teaching in the British capital, then mostly learning along the coast of France. And that learning was what her other flight was all about.

That evening, with a boost (I hoped) from a healthy lunch of tofu and heirloom tomatoes, Amy would perform a new work as part of the Big Range Festival at Barnevelder Arts Center. And unlike most dancers in most dances, her feet would spend relatively little time on the ground.

“I think it’s the subtleties,” Amy says, addressing the difference between the aerial work she does, wrapping and unwrapping herself with a long strand of white fabric, and the kind of act that turns up in a circus, even in Cirque de Soleil. “We slow it down. We play with the moment and the idea we’re working with. But we still have a wow factor. We still do training in basic circus – and then we play with how do we move out of this? How do we make it more like a dance and less like a series of tricks?”

The relatively short piece Amy performed that evening was enough to show what Amy’s style of aerial dance was all about – and also what makes it the world of the few, the proud among dancers. According to Amy, the tendency in most forms of dance is to live from your waist down. The strength of your legs becomes paramount – to leaping, to twirling, even to just standing in one pose for a really long time. Not so with her take on aerial dance.

This stuff is all about the arms and shoulders, about what she describes matter-of-factly as “upper-body strength.” And yes, all you have to do is watch her to know that’s the case. There she is on the ground, and a moment later she’s most of the way to the ceiling. Between the two places there is little to move her except her arms.

“I am extremely strong, even though I’m not very big,” she observes. My first thought is: she’s lucky she’s not very big. My second thought: I have both parts of that equation wrong. “I now use my entire body. I can probably out pull-up any man in town.”

Which means, as far as I’m concerned, Amy can do more than half of one.

For the Barnevelder performance, Amy is joined by two other dancers doing aerial – representing the mere handful of local dancers who blend interest with physical prowess in a way that makes this even possible. The three women perform more or less in tandem in the air, raising and lowering themselves, turning within the fabric to create a multitude of harnesses and swings, then suddenly falling in a controlled way to be caught in lovely fashion by the web they’ve woven. Oh the webs we weave!

Amy makes clear, however, over our last bites of lunch, that she has no plans to abandon dancing on solid ground, or for that matter, to give up the dark, relationship-rich choreography that has baffled and haunted Houston audiences for years. This aerial work is simply another piece of the puzzle that is Amy Ell – and in artistic terms, another color for her already stuffed paintbox.

She’ll need, apparently, all the colors she can get.

Even as prep for Big Range was reaching a fever pitch, word was leaking out that Amy and Tony Leago Valle, another local dancer with a following and a highly personal style, were each forming official  companies with plans for a double-bill performance next spring. Amy’s company will be called Vault, which probably won’t come as any big surprise. Toni’s will enter the world as 6 Degrees, an appropriate reference for a choreographer-memoirist-performer much concerned with the way our lives fit together, for good or for ill.
The two companies will remain separate, Amy insists before heading off to the first of her two flights.

“This is not a collaboration,” she says. “Toni and I are both starting our own companies. We are very different in our styles. She tells stories, and her work has a very personal side to it. My work also has a personal side, but it’s more abstracted. Between the two of us, we will create an evening of very different dance. It’s be a night of something for everyone.”

Of course, if there’s any need for an encore, I volunteer to be bench-pressed. – John DeMers


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