By Mae G. Banner
Leapin lizard: Momixs Gila Monster.
Theatre, Jan. 24
Moses Pendleton, son of Pilobolus, father of Momix, mesmerized
a nearly full house last Saturday evening at Proctor’s Theatre
in Schenectady with his newest conjurations—a three-dimensional
human slide show called Opus Cactus.
An expanded version of Pendleton’s 1999 piece for Ballet Arizona,
Opus Cactus is a set of 19 short takes that evoke the
landscape and creatures of the Sonoran desert. Five men and
five women, limber in body-baring costumes, played out clean-cut,
gymnastic constructions while hanging from wires, manipulating
phosphorescent globes under black light, or dancing with simple,
but high-concept props, such as poles or giant fans.
This gleaming production is enacted before backdrops that
range from a black velvet sky pricked with silver stars to
a blue and rose desert sunset. The music is a pastiche of
multicultural pop, including cuts from Brian Eno, Hamza al
Din, Dead Can Dance, and plenty of Southwest Indian chanting.
Opus Cactus is non-stop entertainment, eye candy for
a mass audience. And, it works, unfailingly.
Pendleton, a mountebank among choreographers, knows how to
pace a show. He massages our sensibilities, moving on a well-oiled
track from languid to increasingly exciting vignettes, inserting
short, pretty palate cleaners between longer bits, and peppering
the program with literary and visual puns.
Cactus begins with Sonoran: But, Not Asleep, in
which a lone woman lies cocooned in a hammock that’s hung
from bungee cords. Using her perch as a trampoline, she flips,
turns somersaults, or flies like Peter Pan. She even does
some jokey ballet leg-beats in mid-air. Her taut languor (Contradiction?
Yes, but that’s Pendleton) draws us into a sequence of danced
illusions that combine artistry with the physical principles
of leverage, balance and gravity.
Storm, with its green tumbleweeds expanding and contracting
under black light, reminded me of Mummen schantz, especially
when three balls piled up to make a glowing snowman. Other
dances made me think of synchronized swimming or of Busby
Berkeley’s Holly wood production numbers. They all made me
I found Opus Cactus to be more tasteful than Pendleton’s
Passion (1991) or Baseball (1994). Less stage
clutter, and more stylized use of silhouettes. No head-banging
electronic music or fun-house body shapes; instead, the linked
dancers embodied the choreographer’s appreciation of the shapes
and movements of desert plants, snakes and scorpions.
My list of the most attractive numbers begins with Cactus
Wren/Morning Star. Here, a wo-man, her body profiled in
silhouette, extends one angled hand, arm, and foot to create
a shape that looks like the feathered shaft of an arrow. In
Black Mesa, springy-legged creatures opened their legs
and bent their knees to describe three sides of a square,
then did a set of frog-like jumps.
Monster introduced a long, snaky body (actually, four
men linked) that undulated along the ground like a peristaltic
intestine viewed horizontally. Red, with black diamond markings
and gray underbelly, the Gila was handsome, bright and funny.
I was sorry to see him split into his separate parts as the
stage darkened to make way for the Sidewinder. The most evocative
prop (recycled from a dance Pendleton made for a troupe of
Romanian gymnasts) was the Dream Catcher, a large parabolic
structure of bent reeds that is the locus for a romantic/athletic
duet. The couple swing in and out or lie along its curves.
They shift their weight and the Dream Catcher rolls and tilts,
always changing, always beautiful. In a quiet ending, the
two climb down and go to opposite ends of the stage, where
they lie on their backs and gently propel the structure back
and forth with a touch of the foot.
Walker was a circusy crowd-pleaser, a risky dance in the
dark with flaming torches attached to the dancer’s ankles.
More to my taste was the women’s dance with outsize fans that
served as pleated skirts, and, after some precise manipulations,
as crowns. A low-key composition of repeated shapes and shifting
patterns, it was pleasing as a quiet garden. Momix blurs the
line between gymnastics and dance. Its shows are a close cousin
to Cirque du Soleil and its many international offshoots.
All sleek surface, no message, Opus Cactus is just
the thing for those nights when you’d prefer visual sensation
over mental stimulation.