Momix at the Joyce Theater on Tuesday, May 11.
Someone once told me that prop comedy is the lowest forms of stand-up. That probably is one of those statements that sweeps a bit too much—though it was meant to denounce Carrot Top, and I have no objections there—but the essential idea is that props easily become gimmicks, and gimmicks are lazy. In any event, I found myself thinking of that comedy maxim as I watched Momix perform an anniversary program comprising works from the past dozen or so years. Certainly, the troupe rates far above Carrot Top (shudder), but even so, under the artistic direction of Moses Pendleton, Momix essentially performs prop choreography, which seems to have the same weakness as its comedic counterpart: it’s gimmicky. The troupe’s pieces can be imaginative and beautiful, but more often, they’re clever but shallow, and at their worst, they’re nothing but empty acrobatic show pieces, artistically inert and, frankly, dull.
The Company, directed by Robert Altman, introduced me to the troupe in a roundabout way. The 2003 movie features the Joffrey Ballet, but one of the pieces featured, “White Widow,” was co-choreographed by Pendleton and dancer Cynthia Quinn of Momix. (The troupe’s process seems to be collaborative, as the artistic director often shares credit with the dancers.) “White Widow” is a short solo piece—a single woman in a long white dress performing a graceful, elegiac dance at the end of a swing—and it’s one of the most memorable moments of the film. It’s lovely.
“White Widow” is a good example of the Momix aesthetic done well (though it doesn’t hurt that the film work is gorgeous). The piece is built around a prop—in this case a swing—but it does more than simply show off what can be done with that prop. There’s something so evocative about the woman’s weightless spins, and especially the way she repeatedly leaps into the air only to fall gently back to earth, like a leaf caught in the wind. When I first saw the movie, I didn’t know the name of the piece, but even without the title, the wistfully mournful air is unmistakable and poignant.
Few of the pieces in the reMIX program struck me like that, though. Part of the problem is that nearly everything is set to repetitive new-agey music that gets old fast, but more than that, many of the other pieces seem rote, like they’re always just setting up the next applause point. And there is much to applaud here. The dancers are stunningly acrobatic (all of them have insanely defined arms and shoulders), and the choreography is designed to make full use of their athleticism. But when that flaunting becomes the whole point, the work itself feels flat.
Take “Table Talk,” a solo that’s little more than a gymnastics routine on a table rather than a pommel horse. It’s undeniably impressive—just as a pommel horse routine is impressive—but beyond showcasing the guy’s upper-body strength, it doesn’t do anything. There’s no fluidity, no lyricism, no rhythm, nothing that makes “Table Talk” a dance rather than a series of cool stunts.
Other pieces have a bit more going on. “Sputnik” features a larger, more ostentatious prop than many of the others: a dull metal top, big enough for a woman to sit on throughout, with three sturdy poles sticking out from its sides, allowing the other dancers to spin and angle the top while dancing around it. The overwhelming “propness” of that setup worried me at first, but the choreography makes such elegant, creative use of the large pronged top that it soon feels like a part of the dancing rather than the whole point. I also was surprised by how much use the dancers got out of clear exercise balls in “Moon Beams.” It’s not a profound work, but it’s cute and playful, and it features all kinds of crazy movements that would never, ever be found in a standard work-out, despite the presence of those damn balls.
But my favorite work, by far, was “Tuu,” the one piece on the program that featured nothing but a pair of dancers on a bare stage. “Tuu” beings with a woman coiled horizontally around a man’s torso and then slowly, smoothly moves through a sinuous partnered dance. It is no less athletic than the other numbers (the woman’s abdominal strength is particularly impressive), but there is a musicality to it, a mood, that most of the others lack. “Tuu” might not have provoked frequent applause mid-performance, but that wasn’t because it didn’t inspire admiration; it was because the dancing was too fluid for artificial pauses, too riveting to interrupt.