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Desert Kaleidoscope
By Mae G. Banner

Leapin’ lizard: Momix’s Gila Monster.

Proctor’s 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.

Opus 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.

Desert 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 smile.

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.

Gila 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.

Fire 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.

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