DANCE REVIEW : Whimsical Momix in Top Form at Wiltern

Moses Pendleton and his 10-year-old troupe Momix were up to their old tricks again at the Wiltern Thursday: fanciful solos and duets rife with tricks and treats for the eye. But they also brought a newer, longer group dance that made the older sleights-of-hand appear as mere one-liners.

Like several dance-theater companies, including Pendleton's first company Pilobolus, Momix specializes in whimsy. Giant props and special effects bring life to all creatures great and squiggly, as the multiheaded apparitions appear and disappear, mutate and transform.

In "Venus Envy" (1986) a giant sea shell opens to reveal what at first appears to be a lone bare-chested female dancer. Then you see an extra set of limbs, eventually realizing that there are two women.

The bride and her inanimate life-size partner in Cynthia Quinn's "When We're Alone" (1988) resembled dancer-puppet numbers by such groups as Compagnie Philippe Genty, seen here two years ago. Pendleton's 1980 signature solo "Momix" was on the bill too, although the dapper gent persona now feels tied to the moment when rap music was new.

In contrast to the rest of the program, the Los Angeles premiere of "Fantasy on a Variation on a Theme" (1989), conceived and directed by Pendelton in collaboration with his seven performers, traded cleverness for depth. Set to Benjamin Britten's "Variation on a Theme of Frank Bridge," the episodic dance addressed such biggies as birth, death and the seasons via an abstract collage of turn-of-the-century imagery, with slides projected in front of the dancers on a downstage scrim.

Here the earnest performers, dressed in spare yet eloquent costumes by Jill Satterfield and Cynthia Quinn, were at their emotional best, cast in Magritte-like tableaux reminiscent of Robert Wilson's large-scale still lifes.

At its best, this company has the intelligence and insight of the most novel modern dance: the cinematic romanticism of Monnier-Duroure or the lyrical theatricality of Maguy Marin.

At their worst, they don't know when to stop milking a clever sight gag, such as the extended shadow and strobe play of their last number "E.C." (1982).

Performances continue through Sunday.

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