ArtsATL > Dance > Review: Lots of flash and gimmicks, little substance in Momix’s “Botanica” at Ferst

Review: Lots of flash and gimmicks, little substance in Momix’s “Botanica” at Ferst

Momix's "Botanica" offered form over substance. (Photo by Max Pucciariello)
Momix's "Botanica" offered form over substance. (Photo by Max Pucciariello)
A dancer with a giant wing was a high point of Momix’s “Botanica.” (Photo by Max Pucciariello)

The Momix dance company returned to the Ferst Center for the Arts last weekend for the Atlanta premiere of its new evening-length work, “Botanica.”

Founded in 1980 by Artistic Director Moses Pendleton, a founding member of Pilobolus, the Connecticut-based company is known for its large-scale multimedia productions and has a loyal international following. It is perhaps this staying power that fuels Momix’s formula. Its concerts — part dance, part visual spectacle — are usually a series of largely unresolved, imagery-based vignettes.

“Botanica,” which focused on nature, did not break from that formula. Almost every section featured a whimsical prop or elaborate costume manipulated by self-proclaimed “dancer-illusionists.” Unfortunately, too few of the illusions produced the intended effect, and it was often difficult to ignore the set-ups.

In one solo (none of the sections was clearly titled in the program), a woman, costumed to appear nearly nude, lay on a large, downward-sloped mirror and sensually twisted her body with her image reflected beneath her. Visually, the effect should have been arresting, and for many it was; this section was an audience favorite. But the choreography — a fairly standard series of stretches and rolls on top of the mirror — failed to impress. Every few seconds, I had to remind myself to suspend disbelief and look at the whole picture: the illusion of a many-legged creature.

In one of the more successful sections, three dancers produced shifting images and animal-like shapes with only their lower arms and legs, in glowing light. But human figures were visible moving around the darkened stage, and the illusion was lost.

Many of the evening’s winning moments came from fabric and prop manipulation. In the first scene, white fabric billowed on the floor as dancers stood up one by one and pressed their faces against it from underneath. The effect was like an unexpected human form straining against the forces of nature. Later, a dancer emerged with what looked like a wing or peacock tail, at least 30 feet tall and harnessed to his torso. As he moved, the wing bent in hypnotic, slow-motion waves, and abstract images projected onto the huge surface.

It was moments such as these, when multimedia elements felt integrated rather than gimmicky, that stole the show. But they were few and far between. Like a radio pop song, Momix has mass appeal but doesn’t offer much food for thought. The references to nature were there — the storm, the wasps, the birds and the flowers — but we were simply asked to identify them. Performers imitated an animal or a natural phenomenon, and we nodded in recognition. In one section, female dancers flapped their eagle wings and mimicked flying around the stage as a stock, screen-saver-like image of an eagle was projected above them. It was as if Pendleton was the mother eagle force-feeding us the point.

Momix is hard to categorize. In comparison with most dance companies, its work is closer to circus acts, a kind of dance-heavy, acrobatics-light Cirque du Soleil. One almost has to wonder, given the simplicity of the movement and choreographic structures, why dance is the vehicle for this brand of performance at all. The dancers are strong and well trained, but their individual strengths — aside from one woman’s ability to turn continuously — were impossible to decipher. The music, mostly generic New Age and world-music sounds, was equally nondescript. In fact, the program listed 22 musical selections, interchangeable pieces that, like the choreographic sections, lacked discernible transitions.

And so it was the designers and production crew who emerged as the heroes of the evening, with impressive feats of construction, notably an enchanting triceratops skeleton. The puppet, expertly created by designer Michael Curry, famous for his work on “The Lion King,” moved with careful and fascinating delicacy alongside its human companion. I wished we could have spent more time in this world; just as the image began to intrigue, the triceratops stomped and devoured her.

In the last section, dancers, armed with golden branches, mugged and preened for an increasingly unenthusiastic audience. The encore, which the program told us was a “solar flare,” evoked the finale of Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations” but with none of the spirit. The dancers shook what appeared to be orange styrofoam swimming pool noodles as a dated world beat coaxed us into clapping along.

Perhaps Momix was once synonymous with innovation. But with “Botanica” it looked more like a relic of the past, a fading memory of a time when its shtick was not yet a shtick. Hopefully, “Botanica” and its episodic ode to short attention spans will mark the end of an era, and soon Momix will move on to uncharted territory.

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