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Flash Review, 9-24: Perennials
'Cactus' Redux from Momix

By Richard Philp
Copyright 2003 Richard Philp

NEW YORK -- Moses Pendleton's Momix opened its three-week fall season at the Joyce Theater last night with the first of three full-evening works, "Opus Cactus." Conceived and directed by Pendleton, 'Cactus' will be performed in repertory with "Baseball" and "Passion."

Although the choreographic material for 'Cactus' is not by any means new to this company of young and cheerfully athletic dancers, the work projects a perennial freshness as a result of its vigorous demands and sharp, careful, polished pacing. If you are familiar with Pendleton's career -- and it might be hard to imagine anybody interested in contemporary dance over the past three decades not knowing about Pendleton's founding work with Pilobolus and, since 1981, with his own Momix -- you already know his distinctly acrobatic style of choreography. But the choreographic demands, the fluid, often sinuous movement that twists and stretches the imagination as well as the dancers' bodies, illustrate Pendleton's larger message: The human body can be a magnificent flowing instrument that has kaleidoscopic beauty, rippling grace, and apparently unlimited potential for invention.

Composed of 19 shortish sections, "Opus Cactus" is presented in two parts, each section illustrating a movement idea which is expressed with an absolute minimum of props other than, of course, the dancers' bodies. Not unlike an evening of what I imagine vaudeville might have achieved at its glorious best, the movement format is filled with variety, surprise, and even a bit of mystery. (How do they manage those wheels of fluorescent bubbles that bounce about the stage without apparent physical limitations, swelling to the dimension of bushel baskets and then shrinking to the size of snowballs?) Here are dancers gliding on skate boards across the darkened performing space, floating on suspended swinging wires, dancing in illusionistic distortion. In one section, two dancers rotate and twist inside a kind of rolling irregular octahedron that threatens to crush their limbs -- it never does, of course, but I wanted to close my eyes or look away more than once.

There is a dance for coral snakes, huge coiled slinkies that wrap around the dancers' bodies; and there is a dance for performers manipulating large fans, the sort of thing that I imagine Ruth St. Denis might have attempted a century ago, had she been capable of doing what these dancers do. A soloist dances on a darkened stage with flaming torches, like flame throwers, attached to the top of his feet; that gives a rather different meaning to the phrase hot foot, as in hot footing it across a performing space. Three men dance with proscenium-high poles which they gracefully juggle among themselves. A soloist walks backwards on all fours in a sort of royal progress around the stage as a gila monster.

"Opus Cactus" is an homage to the American Southwest's Sonoran desert, a place of obvious fascination for the choreographer. The opening night cast of eleven dancers included (in alphabetical order): Danielle Arico, Jane'l Caropolo, John Corsa, Anthony Heinl, Michael Holdsworth, Amanda Kay, Pi Keohavong, Suzanne Lampl, Heather Magee, Kara Oculato, and Brian Simerson. I noted in the dancers' program bios how many of them had university degrees, had studied and performed in Connecticut (the company is still based in Washington, Connecticut), had ballet training at an early age, and were at the beginning of their professional careers, in their early '20s. The music is a mix of popular, country, folk, and native American recordings. Lighting design is by Joshua Starbuck and Moses Pendleton, with additional light design by John Finen III. Costumes are designed by Phoebe Katzin, puppets by Michael Curry, and sculpture design by Alan Boeding. The opening solo and the fire dance have been choreographed by Brian Sanders. The season runs through October 12.

Richard Philp is editor in chief emeritus of Dance Magazine.

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