Chicago

Ellen Fisher

In her performance Figurines, Ellen Fisher seems to undergo a variety of scale changes. When she enters we see her normal human proportions. Then she kneels in a sort of subterranean space below a small table whose top becomes a horizon, as if she were some giant spirit who extended up to the sky. Next, sitting on the table, she pulls a male and a female figurine out of her dress and dangles them on strings, suggesting that she is some disembodied force of political control. Then, in a black mask and net costume, she leaves the table and dances in front of a bright spotlight; the impression is of a snaky demon 12 feet tall. And in a final transformation, she returns to the table to become a human being again and resume human emotions, human appearance.

Fisher’s spasmodic, undulating, gutsy movements are a unique combination of Tai Chi, gymnastics, Kandyan convulsive dancing, and ballet on points. Particularly disturbing and forceful is her mixture of simultaneous sexiness and evil, as if sensuality were somehow related to chaos and “the devil.” Variously, I thought of Salome dancing over John the Baptist’s head, of primitive shamans allowing supernatural beings to possess the body.

But how then explain the fact that even so, these movements are really neither “male” nor “female,” and the enactment of spirits, pawns and energies often avoids any idea of good or bad. In this sense, Fisher’s work is closely linked to the Indian dancers among whom she studied and whose lives characteristically mingle hallucinations, dreams, and ordinary vision.

After all of this, it may seem a contradiction to discuss the work’s pre-planned rational structure, yet the reason it does not dissolve as Western “art” is the planned progression, the odd soundtrack (a striking compilation of the Egyptian singer Om Kalsum, vocals by Fisher, synthesizer by Marc Dimmit, and a track by Moon Dog) dictating how many minutes are allotted per sequence, and a story of sorts which does impel the action. Logically speaking, Figurines can be seen as a narrative about timeless women suffering when husbands go out to sea and never come back, the people, like figurines, becoming pawns of custom and superstition, the demonic dance finally yielding to tragedy.

—C. L. Morrison