AUSTIN: It was an encounter with Trojan Women a few years ago that inspired Bonnie Cullum, artistic director of Austin’s VORTEX Repertory Company, to start working with the elements—all five of them. “Air, fire, water, earth and spirit are essential human concepts that everyone can understand,” says Cullum, who’s fond of ritual and myth. Contemplating the elemental qualities of Euripides’ ancient drama, the director realized that there might be theatrical potential in basing full-fledged productions on specific elements: “There’s a lot of untapped energy there.”
And the idea had practical ramifications. “It’s also important to raise environmental awareness in different ways, instead of just recycling petitions,” Cullum believes. “The potential for us to turn things around on this planet is kind of now.” Cullum opted for a positive approach, focusing on how humans can ally with the elements—like using solar, wind and water power to our advantage—instead of fighting against them.
The first in her elements series—a show called Air, featuring a gaggle of aerialists—debuted in 2011. Fire, initially slated for February 2012, was cancelled due to a severe drought that resulted in a fire, causing the loss of more than 1,600 homes in nearby Bastrop County. “It was clear to me that it wasn’t a time to give fire a lot of energy,” notes Cullum, who scaled the production down to a two-day workshop conducted after rain had arrived and a burn ban had been lifted.
Water, an NEA-supported dance-theatre piece, came next, complete with choreography by Tony Bravo and a splash zone for game spectators: “An eight-foot waterfall cascaded into a giant pool we had onstage.”
Now it’s time for Earth. Cullum’s fourth-element show, which runs March 22–April 20 at Vortex, will involve dirt—no surprise—but it won’t utilize Vortex’s outdoor yard space. “We did an outdoor installation back in 2005 and it was great, but there were a lot of insects. For Earth, I didn’t want the actors digging around and coming up with something weird.” Instead, audiences will sit in the round contemplating an enormous indoor pile of soil, as the show’s cast of eight performs text drawn from poems, classical sources and various world mythologies. “There will definitely be an Earth anthem,” the director attests.
As for the final element: “I’ll wait a year before I do Spirit. That show will draw on all of the elements to explore the concept of soul and what is divine about human beings.”