New York

Momix

Joyce Theater

Since the ’60s, anti-illusionism in its many forms has ruled contemporary dance, theatrical illusionism often being equated with cultural as well as philosophical deception. Of course it’s entirely logical that out of the current welter of kinesthetic truth-tellers would arise yet another restatement of illusion in movement. Moses Pendleton, a founder of the determinedly sleight-of-foot Pilobolus troupe, takes magic over the top in the choreography for his own company, Momix (company members are also credited as creators of individual pieces). Each of the 14 dances on Momix’s recent program (13 brief vignettes and one long work) hinged on a visual/prop trick. In one sense, the foolery worked as expected: when the conceit was a resonant one, the dance succeeded. When the given trick was negligible, however, the viewer was left with nothing to fall back on, and even clever, one-liner pieces of extreme brevity became irritating.

Elva, 1987, for example, is a three-minute vignette featuring an oversized, blue-suited dancer gyrating to Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes”; a video monitor “head” on the figure shows a closeup of Pendleton mouthing the words to the song. After an initial half-laugh at the silliness of the image, there’s nothing to do but watch the tired notion play itself out. Pendleton’s all-or-nothing approach paid off when a work’s surprise factor contained less in-your-face wizardry and more realism. In Spawning, 1986, four women work out with four large balloons, riding them, folding themselves around them, and eventually, while lying flat on their backs, releasing them to soar upward. The work’s interest derives as much from the dancers’ efforts to cope with the inflated rubber objects as from its obvious birth allusions, a metaphor played out here in a surprisingly understated way.

Despite its conundrumlike title, the program’s premiere, Fantasy on a Variation on a Theme, 1989, displayed a different Momix. Relatively lengthy (a half-hour), with an unfolding narrative involving a priest, a woman in white, and a butterfly, and with its more conventional staging—the dance takes place behind a scrim on which slides are projected, and is set to Benjamin Britten’s neo-Mahlerian score—the piece added a dark undertone to Momix’s usually glib, zippy goings-on. Despite some choreographically irrelevant digressions and rather overworked symbolism (such as temptresses wearing long red gloves), the piece achieved an elegiac eloquence with its death-haunted imagery. The projections (by Pendleton and Neil Peter Jampolis) were echt 19th-century morbid: tombstones, flowers, eroded stone faces, leaded glass windows. Combined with the requiemlike stateliness of Britten’s music, the “props,” for once, pushed the piece toward an emotional reality that helped ground the dance’s considerable magic.

John Howell