The title of the performance — Viva Momix: The Greatest Hits Tour — did sound a bit like a Latin band’s last hurrah but Momix’s return to the Duncan Theatre on March 2 was nothing like that.
As always, it was a complete delight — an inventive and fun evening filled with excellent dancing and a wonderful sampling of highlights from Momix’s outstanding evening-length works, some of their most popular classics as well as a few of their latest creations. It was the kind of entertainment that you didn’t want to end even though you knew that you would always remember the elated feeling it gave you.
Momix has been around for a long time, so they have had time to get it right, but this troupe does not rest on its laurels. When they tour, there are two to three companies of dancers performing different programs at the same time all around the world and, at home, in their tranquil studios in rural Connecticut, there are always new creations in progress. Under the artistic direction of founder Moses Pendleton (who was one of the original four Dartmouth gymnasts who made up Pilobolus Dance Theatre), their shows thrive on illusion.
Pendleton, who formed Momix in 1980, was born and raised on a Vermont dairy farm, and so it is not that surprising to learn that the name of the troupe is derived from a milk supplement fed to veal calves.
The sold-out weekend performances, which were part of the Duncan Theatre’s popular Modern Dance Series, were chock-full of variety and a virtual feast for the eyes. The use of props and costumes was at times simple and at other times astonishing but it was always supremely effective. At first, the dancing seemed to take a backseat to the visual theater aspect of the show. The familiarity and ease that the dancers so suavely demonstrated with their props camouflaged the complexity of fusing one’s movement with an inanimate object.
In Dream Catcher, a gigantic, twisted-wire teardrop-shaped sculpture acted like a rolling jungle gym as Heather McGee and Jason Williams caught a bar and were lifted and suspended high in the air for a moment until gravity reversed direction and they rolled back. The intricacies of the timing and weight distribution were sensational. The minimalist ending was breath-taking as the sculpture unmanned continued to move back and forth in a circuitous path, rolling over the dancers who were lying motionless on the floor.
As the well-paced program of 15 concise works rolled out, it became evident that dance was the heartbeat — the pulse — of the show and that the natural beauty of movement was the most essential element.
All nine of the dancers were strong performers. Each knew when to recede and allow a prop or illusion take command and when to expand and show off their technical expertise and personalities. The program had a strong focus on female sensuality and beauty both in the solos and in the various all-female works. In Baths of Caracalla, the women alluringly manipulated their white skirts in multiple ways including removing and spinning them with their arms to create shimmering circles that looked like butterfly wings.
The skirt was used again as a prop in Marigolds, but in this work, the bright orange multi-tiered short skirts helped the dancers evoke charming images of flowers blooming. In the final image, the women wore their bouncing ruffles on their ankles as they retreated upstage looking now more like flirtatious flamenco dancers.
In Spawning, three women wielded large white orbs that were always connected to their bodies as they continuously shifted them into different locations — on their backsides, between their legs — until the last moment, with the orbs balanced on their upward-turned faces, the women released them one by one and they rose magically upwards and disappeared into the blueness of the stage.
Jennifer Chicheportiche was half-muse and half-Rorschach inkblot in Echoes of Narcissus. Lying on a platform slanted towards the audience, sometimes half-disappearing but always reflected in a dim, downward light, she slid and rolled, creating one kaleidoscopic image after another together with her reflection. Chicheportiche also performed the stunning solo Aqua Flora, in which she wore a headpiece made with floor-length strands of beads that flared out into an enormous circle as she spun, trance-like with varying speeds and rhythms, from the beginning of the dance to the end.
The men and their masculinity weren’t neglected in the program. In Pole Dance, they gracefully vaulted with the aid of rods and in Daddy Long Legs, they were cowboys — each with an abnormally long stick leg — who sparred together. Williams, who was trained locally at Boca Ballet Theatre, was a standout in Table Talk. Bare-chested with muscles glistening, he maneuvered over, around and under a rectangular wooden table showing great strength and gymnastic control as well as charm whenever he found a moment to share a cocky smile with us during his impressive solo.
There was nudity in the show, but it was just another element to add to the visuals. It was presented with refinement, much like viewing a nude statue in a museum and marveling at the beauty of the human form. Nudity was also an element in Paper Trails, a large ensemble work that was credited as a 35th anniversary creation in the program. This visually saturated work that utilized projections of letters superimposed on the dancers’ figures, the stage drapes as well as the rolls of paper that are the main prop in this work. Paper Trails pays some homage to the 1960s and 1970s multimedia dance presentation of Alwin Nikolais, where projected images blended the dancers’ bodies with his stage environment.
But for me, Paper Trails was more than just that. It had a somber tone that I saw as an elegy for things that are lost. At the beginning of the work, the dancers stood still on one leg with the other tucked up like a hieroglyphic symbol. Later, they were on all fours walking like languid lionesses. The projected symbols changed from columns to lines of letters that were now caught on rolls of white paper that spanned across the stage. It made me think about the importance of the written word and today’s evolution away from sanctity that words on paper used to have and to the growing distrust we have for words on our devices.
As the semi-nude dancers slowly moved towards each other and the glow of a warm, central light, they wrapped themselves in lengths of blank paper as if to create a protective wall or shell and isolate themselves. Have words failed us?
The humorous If You Need Some Body was a great finale to the show. Not going in the directions of any lyrics that the title might conjure up, the upbeat work was set in a tongue-in-cheek manner to J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. The full ensemble piece doubled its cast size with the kooky use of life-size, raggedy dummies that “danced” with the performers in an energetic pseudo-ballet. At times, the blank-faced dummies shared body parts with the dancers (like a set of legs) thus giving real life energy to the floppy puppets as they madly pirouetted across the stage or leaped off into the wings. It was all great fun, accelerating to a point where the dolls were suddenly free, flying high overhead as they were tossed here and there.
It was dance illusion at its best. As one dancer said in the post-performance talk: “We want to make it long enough for you to enjoy, but short enough so you don’t figure out what we are doing.”