The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

December 20, 2023
VIVA MOMIX Program – Floating(premiere); selections from: Botanica (Solar Flares, Sandpiper, Marigolds, A Nest of Hornets, Man Fan, Aqua Flora); ReMIX (Baths of Caracalla, If You Need Some Body); 35th Anniversary Creations(Daddy Long Leg, Light Reigns, Paper Trails): Lunar Sea (Snow Geese, Moon Beams); and company classics (Brainwave, Table Talk)

Jerry Hochman

Who needs Drosselmeyer when you have Moses Pendleton?

MOMIX, the company created by Pendleton in 1980, returned to the Joyce Theater for a three-week end-of-2023/ beginning-of-2024 season, bringing with it one world premiere and fifteen pieces from different programs that might be (but aren’t) described as MOMIX’s Greatest Hits (or, at least, some of them). In a time of year noteworthy for appearances by the magician/ toy maker Drosselmeyer (pick a version, any version, of The Nutcracker), illusionist/ choreographer Pendleton does him several times better. Drosselmeyer can change a doll into a prince; Pendleton and his creative team meld everything together indivisibly, in the process transforming dancers into whatever strikes their fancy: flowers, birds, bees, beams of light, and bewitching displays of bedazzling bodies. About the only thing he hasn’t conjured is a flight to the Kingdom of the Sweets – but give him time.

As I’ve observed previously, comparing MOMIX to most other forms of dance companies is like comparing apples and oranges. In program notes the company is described as a one of “dancer-illusionists.” That’s true, but it must be emphasized that the components are inseparable. Although dance is an undeniable component of the illusions created, they also come from the way the dances are mounted and presented, including the sets, lighting, costumes, and staging. But it’s the beauty of human bodies, or parts thereof, in constant fluid motion rather than static visual images that make the dance/ skits (most lasting around five minutes, give or take) as ingenious, and as entertaining, as they are.

The only down-side to Wednesday night’s performance was that as good as most of these dance skits are, after awhile – even with one dance different from another – there’s a sense of repetition. Even magic can get tiring. Part of that is the result of trying to figure out how Pendleton and his creative team (members of the company and staff, including but not limited to First Assistant and Associate Director Cynthia Quinn, costume designer Phoebe Katzin, and lighting designers Bruce Goldstein, Joshua Starbuck, and Woodrow F. Dick III – who also handled video design) were able to do what they did. But part of that sense also may have resulted from déjà vu; MOMIX presented much of this same program at The Joyce five years ago – though I suspect that few members of the sold-out audience knew, or if they did, cared: as a general principal, with MOMIX once is never enough. In any event, if one particular MOMIX dance isn’t sufficiently pleasing, the next one likely will be.

One of the evening’s finest pieces was the lone premiere. It’s very similar to a piece on the 2018 Joyce program, and perhaps can be seen as an evolution of it.

Before MOMIX, in 1971 Pendleton co-founded Pilobolus. It’s unwise to attempt to detail the differences, if any, between the two companies, particularly since I’ve only seen a fraction of each company’s output. But I suppose if a dotted line can be drawn separating the two by process and appearance, based on those programs I’ve seen Pilobolus relies more on balance and weight-shifting while MOMIX relies more on illusion. But then, Pilobolus presented Shadowland. And MOMIX here premiered Floating.

Floating is what its title says, but more. As the curtain opens, three sets of couples are intertwined (each dancer’s limbs encircling the body of his/her partner) in a sea of darkness. That is, only their bodies are illuminated; everything else on stage is black. Consequently, the three couples look like they’re floating on air.

MOMIX in Moses Pendleton’s “Floating”
Photo by Quinn Pendleton

Soon thereafter, it becomes clear that all three are standing atop an angled black platform. Shortly after that revelation, it’s revealed (I suspect via a lighting change) that this black platform has a mirrored surface – as did the piece on the 2018 program, Echoes of Narcissus (which, like Floating is now, was the first piece following intermission). But while Echoes of Narcissus featured one woman seemingly dancing with her own image reflected in the mirror, here the three sets of couples appear to be dancing together with their image reflections. Consequently three couples are visualized as six couples (or twelve individuals when each member of the pair moves distinctively from the other). And the six dancers are clad in what look like skin tight and skin-thin short white underpants (with the women wearing bras of similar fabric), which give the piece an additional quality of distinctive sensuality.

However, unlike the self-focus of Echoes of Narcissus, the couples here are clearly engaging with each other rather than themselves. Every movement or movement change is mesmerizing – and some of the patterns and shapes that arise from this movement are based on balance and weight-shifting.

Floating is choreographed by Pendleton (assisted by the Company – as is noted with respect to most of these dances) to “Once Upon The Sea of Blissful Awareness” by Shpongle, a group with which I’m not familiar. According to Wikipedia, Shpongle is a psychedelic electronic music project from England that formed in 1996. They’re credited with originating the “psybient” genre – one that combines world music and vocals with contemporary western synthesizer-based psychedelic music. Apparently they’re quite popular.

And the name “Shpongle” is defined by one of its members as “feeling positive and euphoric emotions” – qualities reflected in the choreography. The music and the staging, lighting, and the dancers’ movement create an other-worldly ambience that combines a sense of being both underwater and in outer space with being blissfully ignorant of any difference.

Floating was performed by Jessica Adams Fowler, Anthony Bocconi, Alison Coleman, Nathaniel Davis, Kelly Trevlyn-Flatscher and Teddy Flatscher with consummate, and essential, precision.

Anthony Bocconi
in Moses Pendleton’s “Daddy Long Leg”
Photo by Renato Mangolin

Snow Geese, from the group’s full Lunar Sea program followed Floating, and maintained a similar ambience (though without the sensuality). Again the stage in its entirety is black, but here only certain parts of the dancers’ bodies are illuminated: the arms and, occasionally, the shoulders to which they were attached. Apparently standing atop black platforms of different heights (or perhaps the same platform as in Floating but without the mirror and maybe at a steeper angle), the five ladies (from the group listed in the program: the three in Floating plus Aurelie Garcia, or Seah Hagan) position and reposition their arms to look like birds in flight. The shapes morph quite cleverly into other shapes as the dance progresses, creating an almost mystical atmosphere.

The evening opened with four consecutive dances from Momix’s Botanica program: Solar Flares, Sandpiper, Marigolds, and A Nest of Hornets.

Solar Flares was not on the 2018 program, and its presentation here is a little strange. It appears to be a combination of the original dance (which I’ve seen online) with an added video component that’s not separately noted or credited, and may have been intended to be seen as an introduction to the theme of perception that permeates the program as a whole.

Be that as it may, the piece begins as a line of dancers (the Company – which consist of ten dancers) move across the stage. A projected image that replicates the stage presentation is promptly added, effectively doubling the action that the audience sees. Then what appeared to be the projection doubles, and soon thereafter doubles again, producing a collective image of the dancers live on stage plus four sets of projected images.

Shortly thereafter the projected images double again, but this time the added projections display images of the “real life” dancers on stage seen from different camera angles, as if either the video projection had been spliced with projections from different viewing angles – or, more intriguingly, that there was no video at all, and that the images that appeared to have been projected may have been produced by offstage cameras generating images from different viewing angles in real time.

With or without noodles (in the initial procession the dancers may or may not have been carrying objects that resemble swimming pool noodles – my notes aren’t clear), this visualization encapsulates the notion that what an audience perceives may change based on changed viewing positions of the same image; or, as Pendleton said in a post-performance discussion, change the angle and the image changes. Logically, the same change of perception may occur if any other component of the original image changes (e.g., lighting, costume positioning, etc.).

My recollection is that this sequence changed to the “real” Solar Flares (based on what I’ve seen of it online). That’s why I think it may have been a sort of introduction (it also might have been intended to forward-reference the multiple mirror images seen later in Floating).

Be that as it may, the second part of the dance proceeds without the projections – just the dancers and their noodles. It’s interesting to see the lines and patterns the dancers form – at one point looking like some strangely beautiful winged flying or crawling bug. But other than admiring the patterns the dancers and the noodles they manipulate can make, the dance isn’t particularly memorable.

The program thereafter segues imperceptivity to the second Botanica piece, Sandpiper, which as presented consists of a solo dancer (Coleman) racing across the stage inside a shell that covers most of her body, followed by a few uninhabited shells (although, in order to move, they probably did have dancers hidden under the shells). The minute long piece (if that) serves as a palate cleanser, but not much else. It segued to the next piece, Marigolds, which is an entirely different, and far more successful, example of Botanica.

MOMIX in Moses Pendleton’s “Marigolds”
Photo by Max Pucciarello

One of my favorite dances from the 2018 program, Marigolds displays how the positioning of an intriguing costume – what appear to be orangeish fuzz balls – can change the nature of what the audience sees. Five dancers at first slowly emerge from inside the fuzz balls to look like marigolds, and then with a slight positioning change morph into slowly-opening fuzzy orange clam shells. Later the dancers wear the fuzz balls as frilly orange tutus, becoming whirls of motion, and then into positions as costumes for characteristic can-can dancers from what might have been a performance of the Folies Bergère, complete with swiveling hips and an air of seduction – subsequently transitioning back into fuzzy orange flowers. It’s quite clever.

If you have flowers, than you have flying bugs, and after Marigolds the program segued to A Nest of Hornets, which was not a component of the 2018 program. But other than three dancers (Blake Bellanger, Anthony Bocconi, and Nathaniel Davis) costumed, complete with ersatz stingers, and moving like hornets with arms occasionally stretched out in flight, there’s not much more to say about it.

(l-r) Teddy Fatscher and Anthony Bocconi
in Moses Pendleton’s “Daddy Long Leg”
Photo by Renato Mangolin

Baths of Caracalla, which was in the 2018 program (from the Re/MIX program) is a visually gorgeous dance that features five ladies in white leotards and frilly little mini-skirts apparently drying themselves with white towels or blankets after a bath or swim. The towels  transform into skirts, and transform again (as the ladies move around the stage) into objects that are manipulated around and over their heads like flags, eventually evoking images of animated, billowy clouds blowing across the stage sky. It’s quite lovely. This is followed, as was the case in the 2018 program, by Daddy Long Leg, a piece created for MOMIX’s 35th Anniversary season, which features the same three men as in A Nest of Hornets, this time costumed as cowboys, each of whom has one leg longer (via an attached stilt-like apparatus) than the other. With this they prance around the stage on their own or as if riding horses. The action undeniably requires considerable skill to look as natural and effortless as it does, but to me it’s a one-trick pony that, pleasant though it may be, doesn’t merit particular attention.

The next two dancers, also 35th Anniversary creations (and both also presented in 2018) do.

Light Reigns is a nifty little dance that plays with light. Five women carry (or wear, like elongated pendants) and manipulate wands of sparkling, moving “crystals” of yellow/white light that travel downward – and then upward and sideways depending on the apparatus’s positioning, and then into a “solid” line of light as the dancers exit into the wings. On the darkened stage, the props look like a cross between light sabers (Star Wars) and illuminated mini Excaliburs (King Arthur), except the combination of the stage movement and the manipulation, coupled with the lighting effects and the music (“Alchemy,” by Deuter), creates gorgeous images from some regal quasi-religious ceremony.

MOMIX in Moses Pendleton’s “Light Reigns”
Photo by Charles Azzopardi

I considered Paper Trails to be a masterpiece when I saw it in 2018, and still do.  It’s a work of visual art that’s intellectually intoxicating and audience-manipulative, but in a creative and non-exploitative way.

In 2018 I noted that the piece was performed without costumes (i.e., nude), complete with a clever pre-performance alert to the audience. This time it wasn’t (the costumes appeared to be nude-colored, and there was no such announcement). The piece may have changed in other ways also from its 2018 appearance, but if it did (it’s so laden with images that it’s difficult to tell), it had no negative impact.

To a musical background that Pendleton assembled from several sources, the dancers (the entire cast) interact with paper – paper “forest-like” formations and paper costumes that evoke images of forest animals – all against a background of dim light and shadow and projected moving vertical segments of multidimensional tan/yellowish coloration. Intriguingly, the dance, which is beautifully structured and executed even apart from its visual context, makes the dancers at one point appear to be mesmerizingly moving human calligraphy on an equally animated parchment canvas. At another point, as Paper Trails ends, the dancers gather together into a scrum from which a head or two occasionally emerges, and something resembling a paper tail emerges from the assembled paper-covered mass as the dance ends – creating a single very large forest animal within the paper forest.

MOMIX in Moses Pendleton’s “Paper Trails”
Photo by Max Pucciarello

All but one of the dances that followed Snow Geese in the second half of the program were presented in 2018. The one different one, Moon Beams (from the Lunar Sea program), appears to be related to one of those 2018 program pieces, Spawning, except there’s no pretense of playing with lighter-than-air fish-eggs. Instead, the cast of three ladies play with, and play off, oversized round balls (I’m told they’re called yoga balls). They jump on them, bounce on them, roll on and off them, and do other things with them that are curiously interesting to watch because of the dancers’ facility, and synchronicity, with the exercises, and also because of the two-tone costumes that change the visual appearance of the dancers depending on which side of the costume faces the audience. It’s nifty, but not anything that’s particularly inventive.

Brainwaves, which preceded Moon Beams, visualizes waves that travel from one side of the stage to the other. It’s very short, and as memorable as an EKG with a funny blip or two. Man Fan, which followed Moon Beams, is what it says it is: a man with a fan – except the fan is a gigantic billowy, floor to ceiling cape (think topsail or spinnaker) that the man (Boccani) can control via a brace of sorts that he wears around his neck to which the spines of the fan are attached. His maneuvering of the brace or of his body, or his positioning on stage, can change the image of the “fan” that the audience sees – and since the fan is so huge (it covers a sizable part of the stage, including the air above it), the result is particularly impressive.

Anthony Bocconi in Moses Pendleton’s “Man Fan”
Photo by Renato Mangolin

Table Talk, one of MOMIX’s “Classics,” in which Fowler displays the strength and grace of an Olympic gymnast as she navigates over and around, on top of and underneath, an elevated “table” platform, and eventually lifts and swings it around the stage as if it were a piece of cardboard. In 2018 the same piece was performed by a man. Fowler’s performance was every bit its equal. And Aqua Flora creates an Indian /mystical motif as one female dancer (either Garcia or Hagan, as the program indicates) manipulates a combination veil and dress seemingly made of strings of pearl-like glass into an ever-expanding display of control and sensuality. Aqua Flora is an example of how a simple sequence of steps and movement combined with a simple costume and expert execution can be transformed into a stunningly mesmerizing and lyrically balletic dance experience.

As was the case in 2018, the evening concluded with a comic masterpiece, If You Need Some Body. Choreographed to J.S. Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major” (Allegro), the piece is comprised of the entire company of ten and an equal number of dummies (as in car-crash dummies) with which each performs (with, in some parts, the dancer and the dummy in a single tu-tu-like costume). It initially appears to be just gimmicky, but If You Need Some Body quickly evolves into not only into a dance that exudes gut-splitting humor, but also into something of a tongue-in-cheek (and ballerina-in-the-air) commentary on dance (particularly ballet) and male-female roles. My only criticism of it is that it ended too soon.

It’s tempting to criticize these dances/ skits as lacking either choreographic or subject matter substance. It’s true that they’re not complex and don’t relate to anything in particular beyond visual theater illusion in which its reality is a product of the perception of it. But that would be a misunderstanding of what MOMIX, at least based on those programs I’ve seen, is doing. The complexity and substance emanate from what it takes to make the magical illusions work. Take an idea for an unusual set of images, and create to it. It might not be high ballet, whatever that is, or a holiday nutcracker, but it’s most definitely seasonal eye candy that’s its own brand of dance art.

This MOMIX engagement continues through January 7, 2024. If you haven’t seen the program – or even if you have – see it this time, and bring the kids.