Momix’s Botanica is Spellbinding

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In 1981, Momix sprang, fully formed, from the exceptional mind of director/choreographer Moses Pendleton, like Athena from the head of Zeus. Momix, a spinoff of Pilobolus, which Pendelton co-founded while at Dartmouth, was an instant success with dance aficionados and casual audiences alike. 32 years later, the fans are still there. Momix filled Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts February 2, garnered two well-deserved standing ovations, and were coerced to give the audience an encore that was every bit as stunning as the rest of the evening-long work, Botanica.

The performance opened with the projection of a giant rose on the front-of-house curtain.  As the curtain lifted, the rose remained, projected on the cyclorama, appearing to recede into the distance as fabric on the stage began to ripple, the sound of a tide coming in filling the theatre. The tide rose, and out of it appeared women’s bodies, swaying with the illusory water, dancing with a gigantic puppet plant.  The company bills itself on its web page as “a company of dancer-illusionists,” and that is factually accurate, but it is the strength, agility, and overall technical prowess of the dancers that imprints itself on the minds of the audience. The illusion is merely a means to that end.

Botanica is all about nature, and it celebrates nature in all its forms—from plants, to insects, to animals, to humans. One of the most impressive vignettes begins with a woman riding a triceratops skeleton onto the stage. The life-sized skeleton is operated from within by a dancer so skilled he was completely missed by some of the audience.  This segment has much to say about conquering other species and about trust of the conquered—unfortunately misplaced in this instance.

The most memorable moment was a solo danced by Sarah Nachbauer on a huge, slanted mirror which reflected her body, often making it appear that there were two dancers onstage instead of one.  This has to be one of the most demanding pieces to tour, as mirror, lighting, and dancer placement are critical to its success.  Ms. Nachbauer’s fluid movement, physical control, and emotional abandon layered the piece with meaning beyond the physical, and had the audience holding its collective breath.

At several points, a live-feed using multiple projectors allowed a small number of dancers to be multiplied in the space. It was frequently difficult to differentiate the actual dancers from their projected images.

One section of the work was performed in front of the projection of an owl, featuring two dancers, each on a single quad skate.  The skaters appeared for too short a time, and didn’t explore all the possibilities; it was one of the few disappointments of the evening—not because it wasn’t interesting, but because it could have done much more.

Women in layers of coral-colored petticoats began as flowers (carnations? chrysanthemums?).  As the dance progressed, the petticoats were moved lower on their bodies, until the women became flamenco-style dancers, juxtaposing the innocence of flowers on the increasingly-mature movement.

The score featured world music, but there was also world dance.  A field of sunflowers was reminiscent of a Chinese fan dance.  At another point, three dancers employed the stylized movement of Chinese dragons.  Bees darted between Egyptian-stylization and hip-hop. A forest of golden trees, inhabited by the full cast of dancers was one of the more beautiful images, with an aboriginal feel.  A lovely dancer in a bead cage spun like a dervish–although her hair, designed to come down throughout the piece, was distracting from the interesting experiments with the beads.

The Botanica choreography took Momix nearly a year to complete.  In a style typical of ‘70s and ‘80s contemporary dance culture, Moses Pendleton arrives in the studio with an idea, and the dancers, listed as choreographer’s assistants, experiment with the idea and its possibilities until the director is satisfied.  Collaborative choreography, while not strictly democratic, gives the dancers ownership of the dance, and their total involvement was clear to the audience. The symbiotic relationship between the dancers and the costumes or props also lent depth to the creative aspects of the work. The sounds made by the props and costumes became part of the total impression of the work.

The most fascinating element of Botanica took place in the audience, not on the stage: Momix made the observers’ brains work throughout the almost-two-hour performance.  Aside from the visual experience of watching extraordinarily creative and gifted dancers perform, the audience was immersed in a world of the company’s creation, each spectator drawn into experiencing its simplicity and its complexity. Sadly, there was only one performance; while the theatre was near capacity, many Atlantans will have to wait for another opportunity to see Momix in action.