Choreographer Maureen Whiting's dance-theater piece "Myth of Us" makes connections between human and animal worlds.

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Dance review |

The creatures are stirring in Maureen Whiting’s new dance-theater piece — ever so slowly at first, it’s true. But by the end of “Myth of Us” they’ve taken us deep into the dream jungle where they live. And they suggest that all you have to do to join them there is open the trapdoors in your mind a little. The result: a lively look at the way we “import” animal imagery and instincts into human rituals and behavior.

Just entering the theater, before the performance, ushers you into an otherworldly atmosphere. On a low platform at front-center stage, dancer Cassie Wulff communes with herself, oblivious to spectators taking their seats. Up some stairs leading into the rafters, Ezra Dickinson gazes down vacantly, a bit like a bored but not-yet-hungry raptor. Under green plastic on the staircase landing, a third figure moves … rising, shifting, pushing out a shape, like an insect trying to break from its cocoon.

Overhead, white plastic bags — clouds? — populate the air. Beneath them, a small, stuffed-toy elephant surveys the stretching “plain” before him.

Then the place starts coming to life.

The lights ease up. Electric thunder rumbles. For the next hour the dancers — first Wulff, then Dickinson, then Marissa Niederhauser emerging from her green plastic swaddling — pull you into their fluid, totemic world. A “cloud” is lowered and “entered.” The synthesizer score picks up a tattoo beat. The dancers begin to move more quickly.

Whiting draws on various animal moves — birdlike darts and staredowns, spidery hand-walks, canine dirt-scratching — to lure her performers, sometimes humorously, to the border of what’s human. Dickinson, at moments, resembles a fawn from an alien planet. Wulff is more gamine, while Niederhauser, the ringleader, works wonders with a “tusk-skirt” that makes it seem she has an extra limb or two to kick and nudge with.

The trio’s costumes, the work of helga hizer and Tilla Kuenzli, consist of ripped and ragged stockings (moulting skins) tricked out with comically lumpy embellishments. They make the fine performers they adorn look like three recently separated species embarked on a rite that might, with any luck, reunite them.

Performed in the round, “Myth of Us” gathers intensity as Wulff, Dickinson and Niederhauser — sometimes only inches away from their front-row audience — thrash, rub, limp, leap and curl their way toward each other.

The mutable space in which they meet is beautifully realized — clouds, elephant and all — by designer Etta Lilienthal.

Michael Upchurch: