MOMIX IN ORBIT
Discman; Orbit; Tuu; The Last Vaudevillian; Spawning; Underwater Study #5; White Widow; Millenium Skiva; Table Talk; The Wind-Up; Sputnik; E.C.
Review by Robert Abrams
October 3, 2002, The Joyce Theatre, NYC. Performances of this Program through October 12.
Joyce Theater: www.joyce.org or 212-242-0800
Orbit, like Strategema, is a game played with all of one's fingers. In both, sometimes you can do everything right, and still fail. Or to put it another way, Orbit is like a perfect ball bearing with no consequences. Or if you are partial to the intersection of all that matters, I kept waiting for a course correction that came too late.
If you are not a die-hard science fiction fan, and the above paragraph leaves you mystified, don't worry because a) it will all make sense shortly, b) I will give you the references in the end notes, and c) this review should by no means be taken as a pan of the performances - it is a critique, and for a critique to be useful it has to be honest.
The individual performances were technically demanding, well executed, and inventive. Momix was up to its usual brilliance in many of the works, such as in the second work presented "Orbit". Here Nicole Loizides managed to dance artistically while also taking the art of the hula hoop to a new stellar level.
There was the work which I think was "Sputnik" where one dancer sat in a pot while the other dancers danced and flew around her on long poles attached to the pot. At the time I thought it was a pot, but given the title of the work, it was clearly supposed to be a satellite. It was beautiful to watch. The dancers demonstrated precise timing during the work, and perfect balance at the end.
The problem was partly to do with the show, and partly to do with my expectations coming in.
I had already seen Opus Cactus, so I was expecting powerful performances and a well constructed evening. I also happen to be a huge science fiction fan, and so, given the title of the evening, I was expecting a dance version of a space epic of some sort.
The evening consisted of a series of separate works that did not fit together particularly well. Yes, there was a space theme, more or less, but it felt like a crutch. There were works where the dancer was representing orbits of celestial bodies. There were works where the dancers were clad in cliché-ish shiny outfits. There were works where the dancers may or may not have been portraying strange alien species.
This is where the first paragraph will start to make sense. If you recall from my review of Opus Cactus, many of Momix's works rely on mechanical assists, and such assists can enhance the dance when used well, but can impede the dance when used inappropriately. Science fiction can have a similar effect. Because science fiction takes the writer outside of known and tested frames of reference, it is a genre that represents a great risk. At its worst, science fiction can be endless descriptions of fantastical creatures or landscapes that might or might not be plausible, but which ultimately leave you wondering why you should care. As if to say, I came two thousand light years for this? At its best, science fiction works because the fantastical is wrapped around a moral core. The work asks you to consider serious questions that may very well be relevant to your own life, but which under normal circumstances you cringe from addressing. Place the question in Space, however, and you can be freed from the daily politics which bind you.
The corollary to this is that green skinned women do not dance just to dance. Green skinned women always dance for an urgent reason.
Science fiction also often works best when there is drama. I realize that much of modern dance is dedicated to a proposition that stands in opposition to narrative, but sometimes you crave characters you can sympathize with; some mystery they have to unfold in order to avert the danger that confronts them. In this sense, the problem with Orbit was that it was like an uneventful visit to Risa. Momix didn't have to threaten its dancers with the Tox Uthat, but at least send in the Romulans.
As I said in the beginning, part of the problem was my expections about what constitutes good science fiction, but part of this part of the problem was caused by a misreading of the program. I was expecting a work based upon the Muppets sketch, "Pigs in Space". There is a reference to "Pigs in Space" in the program, but a careful rereading revealed that it was actually part of Opus Cactus, not Orbit.
Which, of course, brings us to the mid-course correction. I came in to the show wanting to and expecting to like it. I wanted to see works that grabbed me and thrilled me the way that Opus Cactus did from the very first number. But each work in Orbit came and went, and I was disappointed. Sure, they were all amusing and well done, but not thrilling. Not thrilling to me, anyway - most of everybody else in the audience was very vocal in their approval.
And then, finally, there was a work which showed the kind of powerful dance and choreography Momix is capable of. Ironically, this work came after the bows. There were no mechanical assists. There were no intelligent science fiction references. There were no shiny costumes. Just energetic dance. Finally, the dancers danced in a way that made me care about them. They danced in a way that showed off their talent and personality. They showed that they could take a choreographic idea and build it to a satisfying conclusion.
So, in the spirit of ExploreDance.com's brave new world of dance criticism (i.e. daring to give renowned choreographers formative evaluation feedback on how to improve their choreography), I have two suggestions.
First, take the short work that was performed after the bows, and expand it to about 45 minutes. 45 minutes is long enough to work out the idea, but not so long that they risk the idea getting ahead off the implementation. If it works at 45 minutes, they can always expand it in a third phase of development later. In this new work, intentionally avoid all of the mechanical assists and fantastical inventiveness that is Momix's signature. Dress the dancers in simple costumes and just have them dance. Doing so will strengthen the audience's frame of reference and is likely to give the inventive works even more impact without having to change them.
Second, take the science fiction concept of Orbit and go for broke. Show us the beautiful, fantastical planet, and then have it attacked by a race of evil symbionts who fly around the galaxy in beer powered spaceships. All of the planet's technological wizardry fails to stop the evil symbionts. Neither the sputnik retrofitted with photon torpedos, nor the Mobius class two-seater battle cruisers. In the end, the planet can only be saved by the empath who sacrifices her illusions to save her world. Of course, this particular plotline is constructed from bits stolen from at least three separate sci fi sources, so the empath is going to have to be protected by a team of lawyers. But you get the idea.
Strategema is a game played in Peak Performance, a Star Trek TNG episode. Data plays the game perfectly, yet still loses to his opponent. He manages to succeed in the end by changing his underlying expectations of the goals for the game.
The perfect ball bearing is a reference to a novel Arthur C. Clarke co-wrote late in his career. The point in the novel was that mankind had developed the ability to create perfect ball bearings, but creating something so perfect necessarily means that something else is sacrificed in the process. The implication for a dance performance is that perfection must necessarily have consequences. Presenting a perfect image in a dance without such consequences is both unrealistic and dramatically less interesting than it could be.
The intersection of all that matters refers to the intersection of science fiction and the Muppets, which primarily means Pigs in Space. As everyone knows, Miss Piggy spent her entire career preparing for the all important mid-course correction.
Yes, there really is a science fiction story built around a space ship powered by beer.
The green skinned woman danced for Christopher Pike, but why she danced for him you will have to decide for yourself.
Photos courtesy of Momix