Momix brings dance illusion to the stage

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP   |   Oct. 17, 2003 at 5:01 PM
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NEW YORK, Oct. 17 (UPI) -- Momix, one of America's few for-profit dance groups, has performed abroad more than in the United States, but it is still a national treasure providing delightful illusionary performances combining dance with acrobatics that are unlike anything else on the stage today.

The company founded and directed by Moses Pendleton is based in Washington, Conn., and has created a steady stream of special dance projects for a variety of commercial enterprises and for film and television. It is best known in Italy -- which the company tours 20 weeks a year -- Brazil, Russia, Japan, Australia and a score of other countries where it sells out theaters, opera houses, and even stadiums.

It is currently embarked on its annual tour of American cities, having completed last weekend its annual three-week season at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan's prime modern dance venue. The company gets no federal or state aid or foundation grants and offers no tax deduction for contributions. It has an annual budget of $1 million, some of which is raised by making TV advertising commercials.

Pendleton, 54, helped found the Pilobolus dance company but split after 10 years to found Momix, playfully named for a milk supplement for cattle, in 1981. He had come to the world of dance over the transom by enrolling in a therapeutic dance class after a ski injury, hence his penchant for athletics-based dance techniques with an occasional nod to classic ballet by placing dancers on pointe.

Like Pilobolus dancers, Momix performers seem to defy gravity but they do so in an ultra-surreal world that is the unique product of Pendleton's imagination. Their visual props include black light, fire, skateboards and tummy trolleys, skis, giant gyroscopic play toys, vaulting poles, Japanese-style fans and umbrellas, and an occasional fantastic puppet.

The audience's usual reaction is astonishment followed by wild applause and cheering.

"I think Momix is a nice antidote to depression that is all about us these days," Pendleton said in an interview. "We don't really paint how the world is, but how it might be. If you walk out of the theater with a little less gravity in your step, perhaps we've been successful."

Pendleton picks up on the national pastime, baseball, as the subject of one of his dances designed to exhilarate audiences. It traces the history of the game from Neanderthals batting a rock to an abstract interpretation of the modern game. Included are a huge baseball maneuvered by a dancer inside, a beer can ballet, and a game of pitch and catch between two invisible players.

"Baseball" features fantasy visuals that fill the stage with the ghosts of Babe Ruth and other diamond greats to the accompaniment of taped commentary from famous sports commentators and players like Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron.

"Baseball," "Opus Cactus," and "Passion" - all full evening dance works - were performed by Momix's 22 dancers in New York to music of such diverse composers as J.S. Bach and Freddie Mercury. Pendleton's 17-year-old daughter, Quinn Pendleton, made her company debut in "Cactus," dancing with her mother, Cynthia Quinn, who has been a member of Momix since 1983. Moses Pendleton no longer dances.

"Opus Cactus" was inspired by the Saguaro cacti of the American southwest. It opens with a dancer who does amazing things with a hammock stretched between the arms of two ancient Saguaros, then proceeds to summon up visions of such desert denizens as Gila monsters, cactus wrens, a sidewinder snake, tumble weeds, and scorpions.

A male solo involves dancing with real fire flickering from the dancer's feet, evoking those mysterious desert lights that can sometimes be seen at night, and an ensemble pole dance recalls Indian tribal ceremonies. One of the most inexplicable effects is the spooling of tumbleweeds across the stage and into the air, coalescing into the form of a tumbleweed man, in total darkness that gives no hint of the actual presence of dancers.

A male and female dancer are totally visible, however, as they operate interlocking teardrops of shining steel until the gyroscope apparatus seems to have a life of its own in a vignette titled "Dream Catcher." Equally fascinating is a reddish Gila monster that prowls the stage, then breaks up into four bodies that crawl away inchworm style.

Shadows and silhouettes are effectively used in several of the 19 dance sequences in "Opus Cactus," proving that the human body and sometimes a body on the shoulders of another can give the illusion of both plants and animals as well as an unusually beautiful patterns of the human physique new to the eye of the beholder. There is no greater stage magic than to provide an audience with a fresh sense of self.

A flirty dance for five women titled "Sun Dance" involves the use of fans used as a strip-tease come-on, finally revealing that the dancers are actually wearing miniskirts. Dancers careen across the stage on skateboards or glide on their tummies on invisible wheeled supports. In the final sequence, prone men who appear to be nude interact with women dancers dressed as Mexican santos figures in the shadow of a giant puppet with a skull for a head.

"Passion," danced to Peter Gabriel's score for the film "The Last Temptation of Christ," is less about Jesus' crucifixion than it is about celebration of man's place in the universe, whose creation is suggested by slide projections. A series of 21 dance numbers evoke many fascinating images including dancers entangled in scarlet ribbons and blown about by whirling umbrellas.

Moses Pendleton, Mitchell Levine, and Joshua Starbuck are credited with the amazing lighting effects and Phoebe Katzin and Kitty Daly for the attractive costumes. Michael Curry of "The Lion King" design fame created the puppet for "Cactus."

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