During the intermission that splits Momix’s anthology of highlights from over 25 years of work, I start imagining the company’s creative process. My daydream begins like this: One of the dancers is working out on an exercise ball; losing her equilibrium, she sticks out one leg in a fetching way to stabilize herself. “Hey, that’s great,” says someone. “How’dja do it?” Before long, the company’s artistic director, Moses Pendleton, has his 14 dancers figuring out how to live on an exercise ball and look terrific doing it. In reality, Pendleton gets credit for the conception and direction of Moon Beams, in which four women do a precision routine on blue balls, but, as usual, the choreography is a collaborative affair.
My fantasy stems more from the look of Momix’s works than from familiarity with the group’s rehearsal practices. On this program, each piece, or excerpt from a longer one, is built on a single gimmick that’s often generated by equipment—a pole to vault with, a rope to swing from, a revolving platform. The best of the dances develop and increase in complexity. Often, though, they seem like compendiums of every idea that can be wrung from the basic premise. Succinctness is not Pendleton’s strong suit. The music—misterioso New Age stuff, with a steady beat and faux-tribal voices echoing through a fog of sound— often just gets faded out at the end of a piece.
Pendleton also buys into a tradition of body transformation in dance that extends from Loie Fuller’s magical skirt-twirling through Oskar Schlemmer, Alwin Nikolais, and Pilobolus (from which Momix spun off). You watch the antics of a long-torsoed, snaky creature that bangs its papier-mâché head on the floor in time to klezmer music ( The Last Vaudevillian), convinced that someone in addition to Yasmine Lee is inside that black bag of a dress. Although there are nine people in Arachnophobia, at first only seven stick-legged, triangle-headed figures—magicked into existence by the fluorescent trim on their black unitards—stand before us. Who knows exactly how all nine collaborate to create the drama of a bug whose offspring ventures too close to a huge green spider and gets devoured (as does its parent). In the finale, E.C., shadows of people and stray body parts play endless optical tricks on us.
Few companies can pull off a three-week season at the Joyce. Audiences love Momix’s combination of acrobatics and transformations, whether jokey, eerie, or pretty. The group has been involved with film and television projects, including the Hanes Soft Comfort commercial. Certain works in the repertory bring to mind early-20th-century styles and the “art” acts on vaudeville bills, sandwiched between the comedian and the monkey. Orbit, in which the gorgeous Lee keeps a golden hula hoop hovering around her with subtle sensuality and minimum effort, recalls the chaster solo that Doris Humphrey performed with a giant hoop before she became a pioneering modern dancer. The Wind Up features associate artistic director Cynthia Quinn (returning, at 53 and looking fabulous, to dance with the company); she spins dreamily in place and in a circle, holding a golden ball and traveling over a floor patterned with multiples of the light mandala that appears in several works on the program.
The most pleasing images liberate the dancers from gravity: Samuel Beckman, Jonathan Eden, and Steven Marshall vaulting around their sticks in Pole Dance; Sara Kappraff and Timothy Melady, in the duet Tuu, rocking and tilting amorously on a large construction of curving golden rods. Most striking is the last moment of an unlikely futuristic fertility rite (Sputnik) involving a golden bowl with three poles stuck diagonally in it and a seated goddess to anchor it. Three couples get the thing revolving and then ride around, balancing with their bellies athwart the poles, their bodies stretched out in flight. A gimmick becomes a metaphor.