Desert Flash and Local Heroes


“It doesn’t stop you from thinking about your life,” said my companion, 50 minutes into Momix’s 2000 Opus Cactus. Indeed it doesn’t. Each time a section begins (12 before intermission, seven after), we’re treated to a fetching or comical or weird image, and then we watch the company’s director, Moses Pendleton, and 11 of the 22 intrepid dancers manipulate that image through many permutations. I found my mind wandering.

There isn’t a lot to engage a mind in Opus Cactus. Its sleek acrobatics and eye-tricking spectacles—Cirque du Soleil meets Pilobolus (of which Pendleton was a founder) with a nod to Alwin Nikolais—project beauty, skill, and humor but the images have little resonance. A gigantic puppet with a skeleton head (by Michael Curry) simply presides benevolently, an element of the decor. Many musical selections reinforce a pop-“ethnic” atmosphere of dreamy mindlessness—exotic and mysterious, with pattering percussion and voices chanting in unfamiliar languages.

When the curtain opens on Brian Simerson lazing in a high-off-the-ground hammock, rolling with it until he’s cocooned, bouncing and soaring with the help of the hammock’s elastic ropes, you can almost predict that he’ll end with dazzlingly rapid mid-air somersaults.

Transformation plays an important role. A man picking his way backward on all fours with a stumpy “head” on his butt becomes a kind of lizard. Women riding men like ships’ figureheads produce an illusion of giant two-legged creatures (“Ostrich of the Imagination,” says the program). Some eye-catching stunts involve extreme flexibility or intricate linkages, like the sidewinder composed of four men that creeps and undulates, following a seductive dance by loose-haired women holding smaller “snakes.”

Still, the moments that come closest to making your spirit soar are those in which the dancers seem freed from the usual constraints of gravity (although they’re usually dependent on a device). Women leap, supported by twin horizontal poles carried by two men; women in elastic harnesses run just above the ground. The duet “Dream Catcher” is one of the few sections beside the curtain call in which you see individual dancers as people (and the program doesn’t identify who performed what). Pi Keohavong and Kara Oculato ride a looping metal structure that redefines the up-and-down of a seesaw in three dimensions. The magic moment comes when they lie at a distance from each other and dreamily roll the structure back and forth; rocking alarmingly as it goes, it passes as if by radar over each of their bodies in turn.

Opus Cactus shares the Joyce season with two other evening-long pieces: the 1991 Passion and the jokey-sporty 1994 Baseball.

Dance Theater Workshop’s 19th annual “Bessies,” as usual, was an up-and-down-the-aisles gabfest for dance folk who hadn’t seen one another all summer. Also as usual, the Downtown Dance and Performance Awards ceremony began with serious, affectionate remarks to “our community” and sprouted irreverent antics. This year’s “hunk” (the guy who hands out the checks and plaques) was “New York nightlife fixture” Scotty the Blue Bunny—polka-dotted and towering on plastic platform heels. He thoughtfully supplied a tissue to teary DD Dorvillier, winner of an award for choreography, and created a picture for the memory books by escorting Merce Cunningham onstage to present a Sustained Achievement Award to Robert Swinston (a prince of a dancer and a vital force in Cunningham’s organization). The spiritedly funky co-hosts—dancer-choreographer-neo-burlesque artist Julie Atlas Muz and performer-Circus Amok artistic director Jennifer Miller—closed the evening with a special toast. They stood stark naked in a minuscule wading pool and poured champagne over each other. For a few seconds, all was right with the world.

Laurie Uprichard of Danspace and Craig Peterson of DTW invoked the great teacher Bessie Schönberg, for whom the awards are named, and her constant admonition to choreographers, “Be wild!”; and David R. White, who recently stepped down after a long and fertile tenure as director of DTW. He hadn’t wanted a Bessie, but, as Peterson said, “if anyone deserves one for sustained effort and sustained commitment,” it’s he.

David was present in spirit. As always, the elaborately poetic citations that presenters stumbled over were his work.

As usual, winners were moved, surprised, and momentarily speechless (Brooks Williams: “Wow, thanks!”; Diedre Nyota Dawkins, who’d just performed sensationally with Ron Brown: “Oh my goodness!”). Presenter Judith Jamison, after very seriously lauding Sylvia Waters, director of Ailey II, as a “spiritual walker,” leaned forward to say, “We barely got you here, girlfriend.” Scott Heron was pleased that he’d worked as a dancer even after word leaked out that “I don’t remember steps.” Awardee Christine Dakin got a warm hand when she said she wanted the formerly standoffish Martha Graham company, which she co-directs, to be part of the whole dance world. Derek Bernstein accepted an award for the last work by him and his late wife Amy Sue Rosen. Wendy Perron spoke eloquently about dance writer Sally Banes and how her 1980 Terpsichore in Sneakers made “our own backyard of international interest.” Banes, still recovering from a major stroke, came from Chicago to accept gallantly and graciously. Winner Sarah Michelson, in England caring for her 93-year-old grandmother, sent a message saying she imagined us at this moment a brilliant community. And, you know, we were.

Related Article:

Bessie Winners by Elizabeth Zimmer

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