IMPRESSIONS: Grounded Aerial's "Insectinside" 360°
In Which Your Faithful Correspondent Attempted to Digitize Himself But Fails
Choreography by Karen (Wren) Fuhrman // Music by John Medeski and Medeski Martin & Wood
Senior Rigging: Paul Curran // Lighting: Jason Heartsfield // Costumes: Kathryn DeVries
Recluse: Will Rhem // Luna: Karen (Wren) Fuhrman
Father Mantis: Kyle Yackoski // Mother Mary: Alexandra Feit
Performers: Abigail Linnemayer, Andrew Patterson, Dawn Ann Perez, Heather Dutton, and Shane Troxell
Almost nine months into the Great Lockdown of 2020, the New York City arts scene remains all but shuttered, and, more than ever, thoughts turn to flight. The dictatorship that we embraced so happily in March is beginning to lose its sheen.
I thought I had found the perfect escape. A company called Grounded Aerial, in Pennsylvania, was inviting shut-ins to participate in a Virtual Reality experiment. Their aerial production InsectInside, choreographed by Karen (Wren) Fuhrman, promised to splash the drab walls of my apartment with gaudy color, and launch me into another dimension. Impatiently, I awaited the arrival of my VR Headset in the mail.
When this instrument arrived, it proved mysterious. A simple box of black cardboard, the headset folds together and has Velcro closures, one of which keeps a Smartphone in place. There are lenses to peer through, and a bridge for the nose. Turning it over in my hands, I felt a Neanderthal curiosity. Here was something new!
Fortunately, in addition to watching Insectinside in 360-degree Virtual Reality, following the program’s November 27 premiere, audiences can also watch it on their computers. This turned out to be a blessing, because my clumsy attempts to use the headset failed.
I began my VR experience seated in an armchair, utterly confused as I watched dancer Will Rhem advance jerkily through a fog, and then disappear. With the frame unaccountably empty, I stood on my feet and rotated my head, owl-like, attempting to locate the dancers in a far-off corner of the room. For what seemed like a long time, I found myself staring down at a mop bucket on the floor. What was it doing there? Answer: nothing. Then, when dancers wearing gas masks came crawling past me on all fours, I dropped to the carpet in my living room and began to roll around. The choreographer had suggested I ask a friend to record my reactions, but this is probably not what she had in mind.
Restored to my vertical axis, I watched the production again on my laptop. It still made no sense, but was, at least, discernible. Relaxing I found myself enjoying it. Insectinside seems destined for cult fame. Its lingering focus on details, bizarre imagery, and nymphs swinging dizzily overhead will make it most attractive to viewers who are thoroughly baked. Though it employs the latest technology, this is classic stoner art, with its roots in 3-D, Cinerama, and those shops in Greenwich Village where, during the 1960s, Jackson Pollock wannabes reeking of weed could make abstract paintings by squirting colors at a spinning turntable.
Set in a gymnasium whose prosaic furnishings contrast with the antics of characters who evoke entomology, InsectInside has one foot on the ground and the other dangling over a precipice. The music ranges from Happy Hour jazz to special effects: strumming, wind chimes, creaking, and heavy breathing, as needed.
Rhem, known as "The Recluse,” drops into a defensive crouch. With elbows raised sharply, forearms hanging, and palms flattened, he is halfway between man and bug. Later, he appears caught in a net and crouches high in the rafters. You never know where these creatures will turn up. The people in gas masks scuttle down a corridor like a ventilation duct—cockroaches dressed for some swank occasion in business attire and high heels. Kyle Yackoski, as “Father Mantis,” towers above them on stilts and elbow crutches. He’s a task master, who brings this motley crew to order and puts them through their paces. In a ticklish episode, a silver chrysalis unfurls in the air, and three blindfolded women emerge giggling, lounging in a triple hammock that slowly spins. Two gossamer figures twirl high overhead. Flapping mothlike wings, Fuhrman herself is Luna. She hangs in a harness, and Rhem pushes her soaring straight at the viewer.
The nuts-and-bolts rigging is more impressive than the digital stuff; and—dare I say it?—this piece might appear to better advantage live, where an awareness of gravity would enhance our appreciation of the dancers’ flying stunts. Yet the best moments of InsectInside have nothing to do with technology of any kind. They’re not the buggy bits, but the human bits: when Fuhrman turns, smiling joyfully, as an attentive Rhem wraps her in a cozy shawl; when Rhem tires of swinging her and clutches his head in annoyance; when he unfastens her harness, and she shrinks away from him, broken and unhappy.
Finally the “cockroaches” overcome the domineering Father Mantis and strip him of his appendages. The other characters assemble, similarly reduced to human scale. Luna has a flashback, recalling an encounter with a heavenly being, but when the vision fades, her surroundings seem more ordinary than ever. The “roaches” chatter, but then grow still. Released from enchantment, they’re all on the verge of awakening.
We were promised an “immersive” experience, and immersive it is, but no thanks to Virtual Reality. No, what makes Insectinside seductive are those moments where the artists touch the viewer’s imagination, and we lose our sense of separation. Then this piece becomes as immersive as analog theater, or as a good book. Maybe it’s time for us to look inside ourselves again, and not count on the latest gizmos to save us.