This last Friday the modern dance company Momix returned to K-State’s McCain Auditorium for the first time in a couple of years. The Connecticut-based outfit is pretty well-known to local audiences, having entertained on the McCain stage at least a couple of times earlier, though I think artistic director, choreographer, and mastermind Moses Pendleton had left Pilobolus before that company’s first McCain performance.
The Momix show we saw this fall was called “Botanica.” It demonstrated the continuation of a trend we have noted before in Pendleton’s work with his company. The dancers are less and less human beings and more and more hidden engines of motion. Props (some of them large), lighting, and Phoebe Katzin’s costumes disguise the individual performers. Ticket-holders had no chance to identify individual dancers until the evening-ending conga number.
This goes along with the program’s description of the company members as “dancer-illusionists.” It also may cause the interested to compare what Pendleton is doing to dance with what the organizers of Cirque du Solei have been doing with great financial success to creaking old circus acts. Is the idea of a modern dance “theme” show with anonymous performers moving to contemporary music all that different from Cirque du Mystere or Cirque du Beatles?
“Botanica” turned out to be more than twenty costume- and music-changes of visual set pieces. The arrangement of the numbers by reference to the calendar of nature may have suggested that we were seeing evidence of the warming and cooling of the seasons. The show began and ended with a flower being broadcast onto screens that acted like curtains.
The on-stage action began, backed by simple and repetitive contemporary music, with one of the familiar dance idioms of the evening, the stage-covering sheet that, held taut and agitated from behind the tormentors, becomes a rapidly flowing river if it is lit just right. In this case dancers emerged a little at a time from the sham liquid. On the rear screen, a picture of a snowy hillside appeared.
We heard honking geese and then saw a blue sky and, on stage, something like a palm tree floated across the water with a sort of umbrella top, and whirling dancers emerged around it. This mixing of dancer performances (usually taking the form of unison or serial movement) with props (some of them large and having some reference to nature), all carefully lit, was the m.o. for most of the sequences.
There were exceptions, most notably the first set’s black light passage. Much more than the duplicated and projected image business in the second set, during which strobe lighting figured, the black light stuff was fairly familiar (and, perhaps consequently, too long). Day-glo colors on black costumes, expanded slowly as their visual components went through planned and increasingly more complex moves.
Another familiar bit performed during the evening was the whirling jail hat routine. During the 2010 Momix McCain show, a dancer named Lioizides performed this. This year another young woman came out wearing what looked like a metal frame for a stock Chinese peasant hat, but with the ribs extended so that they hung down all the way to the floor. As the dancer whirled, the ribs locked up so that they stood out straight as the spinning continued. This is an impressive business. How dizzy does the dancer feel by the end of the sequence?
The costuming idea that allowed the performer to move up into the center of the hat frame was on display in a couple of other numbers, most notably in one where the costumes began as balls of fur. The dancers moved up into the costumes and the lowering fur suggested different recognizable kinds of dresses, until the ankle-length limit suggested Spanish vamp outfits.
Sometimes the costumes got close to being props, as when the centipede became a series of centaurs or when the dancer performed with the triceratops skeleton. And then sometimes the props took over for a sequence, as when two large flags were swung around level to the floor or when, late in the show, the large ribbed sail or huge fan appeared. These sequences relied heavily on lighting.
This was a wonderfully visual show, and one that pleased even fairly young theater-goers. And there were passages that I found arresting and effective. But at what point is what Pendleton is doing with Momix no longer dance? When do the performers disappear into the illusions until there isn’t sufficient difference between a Momix show and a Las Vegas magician’s performance? We aren’t there yet. Not quite.