Momix leaves little to imagine

By Thea Singer
Globe Correspondent / May 8, 2010

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Momix artistic director Moses Pendleton traffics in illusion: Puff balls morph into Spanish dancers; disembodied black-lit arms and legs stack up as stick figures before curving into hearts; rocks turn into bony crabs that strangle men who minutes before had used them as pillows.

Last night, in the Boston premiere of the troupe’s “Botanica,’’ those illusions, at best, became dance, complete with dynamics, geometric structure, and movement phrases that added up to meaning. But too often they registered as manipulation of a prop: An image spelled out for us using lighting, projections, and Michael Curry’s fabulous puppets, leaving little to our imaginations.

“Botanica’’ intends to trace the rhythm of New England seasons. And the evening-length piece, featuring a score ranging from birdsong to Vivaldi to techno music, is cracked into two parts, winter/spring and summer/fall, to get the message across. A quotation in the program by mystic writer Maurice Maeterlinck further explains the theme: “The plant strains its whole being in one single plan: to escape above ground from the fatality below . . . to enter a moving, animated world.’’

The world Pendleton posits on stage is indeed animated, if not always moving. Couples connect to become half-human, half-horse and gallop and preen but don’t really get anywhere. A gorgeous skeleton of a dragon enters carrying a bare-breasted woman. He grabs her head in his mouth, and you expect a battle to ensue. But the tension between them never develops, despite her crawling inside his rib cage and staring out as if through bars.

Yet when illusion and substance do come together, the segments sing. In one, a woman lies, stretched to the breaking point, atop an inclined slippery mirror. She’s in a dance with herself, the most intimate kind there is. She arches into a backbend, her knees bent up, and her “other self’’ does the opposite, creating a Rorschach blot. She flips and raises her chest and legs off the mirrored surface, joined to her reflection at the belly, as if by an umbilical. As she balances on her hip and pedals her legs with alacrity, her dimensions multiply, a testament to how multifaceted we are.

In another riveting sequence, a woman enters with what looks like a birdcage covering her from head to knees. The cage is not rigid but constructed from loosely hanging threads. She begins to spin, dervish-like, recalling the spirituality of choreographer Laura Dean. The bars of the cage swing open, and transform into a flying saucer. Still spinning, she swings her head and the saucer becomes a filigree cape, speckled with light. She embodies the rhythm of the tides, Maeterlinck’s plant set free.

MOMIX Presented by World Music/CrashArts.

At: Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson College, Boston, last night. Program repeats through May 9.