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'Opus Cactus'

by Stuart Sweeney

September 29, 2005 -- Peacock Theatre, London

Momix changed my life. In the mid-80's I was attending dance performances from time to time, but films remained my principal arts obsession. Then a rave review for Momix in The Guardian spurred me to go and I was bowled over by the beauty, imagination and humour on display. As a result, I became a friend of Sadler's Wells, and with half-price tickets for many performances (the current schemes are not as generous), I saw most of the shows: London Contemporary Dance Theatre, Preljocaj, Merce Cunningham and eventually Birmingham Royal Ballet. But it all started with Momix: my route into the art form.

In the early days, all the shows, now called "Best of Momix", consisted of a series of unconnected dances, underpinned by the strength of the performers and the fecund and wacky imagination of Founder and Artistic Director, Moses Pendleton. The next step was a full-length piece, "Passion", also made up of short sequences, but with a score by Peter Gabriel and front projection onto a scrim to give a consistent overall feel. Another full-length work followed, "Baseball", but this left London audiences and critics cold, perhaps due to the lack of resonance of the central theme for a nation of cricket lovers.

Finally, after an overlong absence, Momix returned to London with “Opus Cactus”, inspired by Pendleton’s explorations of the Arizona Desert. We see an eight-legged Gila monster, small animals zipping around flat on coasters, pairs of dancers pacing like ostriches and Pendleton’s on-going fascination with flight. It might be called “A Treatise on Diverse Methods of Locomotion”, but I guess that’s less catchy.

The performers are called dancer-illusionists, an apt description, and they execute the characteristic Momix style with power and fluid movement. In a quiet opener, a girl in a hammock wriggles, almost falls out, ties herself in knots and spins like a top. Next, in “Desert Storm”, we see a black stage and tumbleweed skittering back and forth, tightening and expanding. It took me some time to figure out the mechanics of these images and then I realised that it was another of Pendleton’s regular devices: decorated umbrellas spinning and opening and closing - even when I’d realised the trick, it remained a delight.

There are 19 varied scenes, so even if one doesn’t quite hit the mark, we’re soon onto the next one, and besides which, the recorded music ranges from The Swingle Singers to Brian Eno and exotic sounds from around the world. One highlight was the first UK sighting of sculptor Alan Boeding’s double gyre - a large metal device that can roll in different directions - and forming a trio completed by a man and a woman.  Boeding originally showed Momix his gyre for a single dancer over 15 years ago and his own powerful vaulting on this beautiful object as it traversed the stage, first in one direction and then at 90 degrees, was unforgettable and convinced Pendleton to put it in a show straight away. The double version also works well, although the choreography for the woman was a little cutesy for what has always been a male preserve. Nevertheless the final scene as the two dancers lie still at opposite sides of the stage and the gyre rolls between and over them, almost in an embrace, is a true Momix moment of wonder.

Beauty was served by “Cactus Wren” for a dancer on point, reflecting that this piece started life with Arizona Ballet, with one arm stretching backwards and the other pointing back over her head, a simple, but very effective form. Props have always been a cornerstone of Momix productions and one dance here uses giant fans with grace and symmetry. The closing scene sees girls in simple harnesses giving the impression of flight in a tightly choreographed sequence, exploring the space fully, including excursions over the heads of the first few rows of the stalls.

At the end of a three-week run, The Peacock Theatre was almost full and I had the impression that this was not a typical dance audience; the rousing applause at the end suggested that Momix can still work as a fine and accessible introduction to dance art. The good news for aficionados is that the Company website shows two new programmes: “Sun Flower Moon” and “Lunar Sea” and, hopefully, the success of this visit will ensure a speedy return. I’m digging out my old Momix T-shirt, despite the holes and severe shrinkage.

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