Though it has been 37 years since Moses Pendleton, co-founder of Pilobolus Dance Theater, created MOMIX, the company of self-described dancer-illusionists, they continue to be in a league of their own in terms of true dance innovation, as proven in their recent performance of “Opus Cactus” at the Wharton Center in Lansing.
Amid a theatrical world growingly obsessed with flashy technological spectacle, MOMIX remains unencumbered by all that, instead relying on the magnificence of what a highly trained, beautifully expressive human body can do — alone and with others. Drawing inspiration from classical ballet and all the dance forms to follow it as well as acrobatics, gymnastics and yoga, this company of 10 dancers creates astonishing, awe-inspiring works of art.
In particular, “Opus Cactus,” a 90-minute program of 18 dances, presents beautiful desert landscapes through moving embodied representations of its strange and mystical flora and fauna with ambient music and through adaptation of ritual, ceremony, and traditions drawn from all over the world.
Ostriches, cactus wrens, gila Monsters and snakes, as well as cactuses, desert flowers, and tumbleweeds come to life with great sensuality and little more than relatively simple costumes by Phoebe Katzin and lighting design by Joshua Starbuck and Moses Pendleton.
Clearly, it’s less illusion than craft when women’s undulating bodies become pythons, men linked head-to-tail become a writhing gila monster, and women atop men’s shoulders in a glorious game of chicken become ostriches. Often performed in silhouette, and both mesmerizing and funny, the expressiveness of these dancers is more literal than emotive, and yet powerfully moving.
In a tremendous display of strength, agility and beauty, the dancers use carefully chosen props to take the astonishment to the next level. Men in flesh-colored boy shorts use light wooden poles as leverage to lift and twirl their bodies perpendicular to the floor in “Pole Dance.” Then they use the same poles to carry women between them as if over a spitfire grill. In “TUU,” two dancers balance and weight-share on a rocking metal sculpture, literally to new heights, and then on the ground, allowing the sculpture to rock over their bodies without crushing them, from one side of the stage to another.
The company creates some of its most moving work in more ritualistic dances, drawing on indigenous cultures for inspiration. It raises questions about cultural appropriation, but also exposes large audiences to the representative ways of native peoples.
In “Sundance,” four women dance with yellow fans that open as large as their wingspans. Against a blue cyclorama with projected images of clouds, this balletic, lulling dance set to an Anishnabe song, is gorgeous.
The finale, “First Contact,” utilizes swings to suspend three women who run in slow motion and then glide and fly in circular patterns in a downstage loop while a 20-foot skull puppet with its own flowing wings looms upstage, witness to the cycles of life, awaiting.
To see MOMIX is to witness the tremendous innovation and artistry possible with the human body. There is no greater marvel than that. And “Opus Cactus” is a delight, full of wonder, that recreates the varied sensual possibilities of global desert landscapes and desert cultures with great fun and beauty.
Grand Rapids Ballet
341 Ellsworth Ave. SW, Grand Rapids