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Momix ‘Cactus’: desert grandeur

Times Staff Writer

As a founding member of Pilobolus Dance Theater, Moses Pendleton cheerfully radicalized American dance in the 1970s by adapting movement vocabularies from the sports world and other nontraditional sources, using them not just for seasoning or local color but as the bedrock of dance expression.

If “anything can be dance” became the mantra of postmodernism, Pendleton and friends became its prime popularizers. But where Pilobolus continues to offer postmodern vaudeville, Pendleton’s Momix company (founded in 1980) has become increasingly committed to single-minded, full-evening metaphor.

On Thursday evening, just a few hours before Pendleton’s 54th birthday, Momix introduced Southland audiences to “Opus Cactus” in the opening performance of a four-day run at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. Reportedly inspired by the Arizona desert, this haunting, two-hour, 19-part suite incorporates so much distinctive world music on its recorded soundtrack that it ultimately becomes a tribute to deserts everywhere.

It begins with a solo choreographed by Brian Sanders that launches the cavalcade of transformations that the evening will present -- and also the emphasis on night vistas that may be Pendleton’s only serious miscalculation.

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Titled “Sonoran: But Not Asleep,” the solo shows Natalie Lomonte reclining in a hammock high above the stage against a backdrop of stars. But the hammock suddenly becomes a chrysalis and then a bungee cord, a swing, a kind of trampoline and a strange aerial ballet barre. Lomonte not only seems to enjoy every change but embodies a vision of perfect freedom that makes this company continually miraculous.

In “Pole Dance,” Todd Burnsed, Ari Loeb and Tim Melady vault like Olympic champions -- but in slow motion, seeming to suspend time or to change space into an invisible liquid that supports them as they leisurely, effortlessly stretch upward. In “Dream Catcher,” Lomonte and Loeb balance majestically atop one of Alan Boeding’s giant, rolling jungle gyms, so serenely unhurried and so in control of the big metal contraption that they’re able to recline on the floor and make it come to them by gyroscopic magic.

Transformations? Take your pick: The company’s most spectacular hotties suddenly dismembered and reassembled into creepy-crawly critters of all sorts or piling up as the giant, justly titled “Ostrich of the Imagination.” Women who become flowers when their rapid turns make their skirts into petals (“Desert Blooms”). Men who begin a twisting, serpentine “Gila Dance” and then divide in an inspiring example of asexual reproduction. (Do not try this at home.)

If you look for them, you can find reminders of Pilobolus masterworks: the men’s legs that complete women’s bodies from “Untitled,” for example, or the spectacular body-surfing maneuvers from “Day Two.”

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But “Opus Cactus” keeps muting its displays of virtuosity so that the showpiece dimension of the performance never shatters the evening’s dreamlike mood.

You could argue that the lighting design by Pendleton and Joshua Starbuck keeps the 10-member company in near-darkness for far too long, never brightening beyond evocations of dawn or twilight. These are, after all, dancers who deserve their moment in the sun.

But ultimately “Opus Cactus” represents a Vermont farm boy’s response to the wonder he feels and sense of mystery he finds in an unbroken, wide-open landscape. So when Pendleton wants you to see the desert sun, he doesn’t merely turn up the lights. No, he asks Sara Kappraff, Jane’l Caropolo, Nicole Loizides and Heather Magee to evoke sunbursts, sun-auras and shafts of light through the manipulation of immense golden fans (“Sun Dance”).

Extraordinarily sophisticated in its creative resources yet disarmingly childlike in its artistic sensibility, “Opus Cactus” sometimes seems to represent a transition away from movement-based expression toward a poetic, European-style theater of images: something between Mummenschanz and the Blacklight Theatre of Prague. If so, the performing arts in America are in for yet another of Pendleton’s cheerful radicalizations.

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Besides the dancers previously named, the company includes Kevin Gibbs and Steven Marshall.

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Momix in ‘Opus Cactus’

Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine

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When: Today, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.

Ends: Sunday

Price: $33 and $40; students, half price

Contact: (949) 854-4646

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Running time: 2 hours


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