Scorpius Dance Theatre performs ANIMAL through Saturday, May 20.EXPAND
Scorpius Dance Theatre performs ANIMAL through Saturday, May 20.
Rose Torres

Lisa Starry Unleashes Scorpius Dance Theatre’s Comedic Side with ANIMAL

Leave it to Lisa Starry, artistic director for Scorpius Dance Theatre, to find the humor in insect sex. When four dancers clad in iridescent green for her newest work conjure images of an odd praying mantis mating ritual, cannibalism becomes downright comedic. 

Since founding the company in 1999, Starry has been a staple of the Phoenix dance scene – creating works centered on love, vampires, water, and fashion.

Her newest work, titled ANIMAL, comprises nine dances exploring animal quirks and the ways animals interact – both with people and with each other. Two works feature aerial performance, at times marred when dancers were out of sync with each other.

ANIMAL’s best offerings, like Mantis Love, unleash the company’s comedic side.

ANIMAL opens with Dancing Flamingos, featuring company members donning fake pink feathers and mirroring the birds’ one-legged stance. Most have at least a touch of diva, eyeing fellow flamingos to be sure they’re not being outdone.

But Starry has her sights trained on more than bird behavior here. In time, the birds begin a series of classic ballet steps, set to music well-known to ballet aficionados. It’s not only the birds Starry seems to be poking fun at here. It’s the snobbery that sometimes infuses the world of classical dance.

Nicole Olson helps set the tone with Dancing Flamingos.EXPAND
Nicole Olson helps set the tone with Dancing Flamingos.
Rose Torres

Dancing Flamingos is one of five pieces featuring Nicole Olson, assistant director and guest choreographer for Scorpius. She’s well-known for choreographing and dancing works performed at Phoenix Art Museum, {9} The Gallery, and other nontraditional dance spaces.

In January, she gave a stunning performance with Travis Richardson atop a 4-by-4-foot stage for the Breaking Ground dance festival’s Tiny Dances program. They’re paired again for ANIMAL. And the duo deliver its strongest performances.

Olson pairs strong, clean technique with expressive power that flows through her long limbs like an electrical charge. Like Richardson, she conveys the fullness of her characters’ emotions using subtle, refined facial expressions that never scream “now we’re acting!”

Before each dance begins, there’s a related image projected onto a screen above the rear stage. The best ones feature cats, who are at the heart of most short interludes performed between dance numbers.

For Woof, another dance in the first act of this nearly two-hour production, it’s a pair of dogs. One is well manicured, and the other mangy. Soon two pairs of dancers, one comprising Olson and Richardson, are bringing the dogs to life, prompting the audience to think about humans with similar traits. It’s one of the night’s funniest offerings.

So is Sloth Race, introduced by the projected image of a sloth hanging upside down in a tree. Starry contrasts the slow movement of sloths with rock music at first, then has sloths wearing giant number signs racing towards a finish line as the Chariots of Fire theme plays. The sloths are just a touch competitive. And these dancers work it to maximum effect, largely through exaggerated facial expressions.

Scene from Lisa Starry's newest production, ANIMAL.EXPAND
Scene from Lisa Starry's newest production, ANIMAL.
Rose Torres

Unfortunately, the comedic thread doesn’t run throughout the show. It’s abruptly severed two dances into the second act, with a film called Trapped. Created by college screenwriting student Xavier Brown, it’s filled with images of caged dogs and cats, and other animals separated from their natural habitats.

The film is compelling, but sorely out of place amid the lighthearted fare. And while a second film called Best Friends charms with images of people and their pets, it doesn’t do justice to the far more creative elements of Starry’s newest production.

Fortunately, Starry ends ANIMAL on a playful note. The full company fills the stage for Meow, a work exploring cats’ strange attraction to catnip. If cats did Woodstock, it would look like this. In the end, they’re consumed by chasing a bouncing ball of red light.

Scorpius Dance Theatre performs ANIMAL through Saturday, May 20, at Hormel Theatre at Phoenix Theatre. Tickets, which cost $36, are available on the Scorpius Dance Theatre website.

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