Leaning toward the impossible

According to local choreographer Susan Collard, the Connecticut company Momix can’t be critiqued as a modern-dance group.

Interestingly, Momix performer Todd Burnsed might agree. “We hate being called a modern-dance company,” he revealed in a recent interview.

The group’s heavy use of props and visual tricks — though “wonderful and exciting,” notes Collard — makes them seem more magic act than dance ensemble.

But where a conventional magician dissolves inanimate objects, the self-styled “dancer/illusionists” of Momix forfeit their own bodies to the void.

“E.C.,” the story of a UFO landing, is danced behind a giant scrim. In the resulting shadow play, human forms fade and rise again as alien life.

In “Jonas et Latude,” a pair of convicts bounce, without pause, from belly to back in a prison bunk bed. The performers’ striped jumpsuits show typical Momixean humor — but it’s their almost surreal physical strength that melts the line between dance piece and dream scene.

Momix founder/director Moses Pendleton first disturbed the modern-dance world with his 1970s group Pilobolus. Boldly recruiting gymnasts instead of dancers, Pendleton gained a reputation for staging showy, athletic performances. With Momix, begun in 1984, he heightened the spectacle: Puppets and good-naturedly gigantic props now share top billing with the dancers, and funny, dazzling optical illusions remain integral to the Momix flair.

Despite lucrative technological advances, the classic Vegas-styled magic show is still tainted by tacky chauvinism (cue the glitter-clad assistants, the conjurer with omnipotent wand). Light years away, the Momix mise en scene offers a world of galactic androgyny. And the company’s musical choices — varied enough, though heavy on the tribal/trance vibe — continue to underscore Pendleton’s humanistic vision.

But becoming part of Momix requires much more than a penchant for whimsy. Burnsed notes that his fellow dancer/illusionists are a varied lot.

“We’ve had mountain climbers; people have come [to Momix] from ballet companies,” he reveals. “I went to Juilliard; some people have a jazz orientation. … It’s that mix that [Moses Pendleton] wants to find — something he sees in someone visually that he can work with.”

That elusive “something” is, well, something Burnsed won’t attempt to pin down.

“Moses says it has to be some sort of ‘Joe Action,’ some sort of extra — I don’t want to say ‘skill’ — something quite hard to describe,” he says.

“You can only see it on stage,” Burnsed adds.

Asked which half of “dancer/illusionist” Momix performers most identify with, Burnsed declares, “it’s a total combination.” But he dismisses other modern-dance groups as at once dull and too dramatic.

“They tend to bore you to sleep,” he charges. Momix, the performer explains, “is about the dance and lights and music and theatricality.”

Those components, adds Burnsed, can be distilled to the simply defined — though hard to achieve — “wow factor” by which the company measures its success.

The tricks, he allows, are everything.

“When the audience is saying, ‘How in the world are they doing that?’ — that’s what makes it fun.”

His shrugging off of more dramatic modern-dance companies implies that Momix exists, in part, to make the genre friendlier to the masses. Though the company has wowed crowds worldwide, their most enthusiastic fans, Burnsed reveals, are in Italy and South America.

“It’s a cultural thing,” he explains. “[In countries] where there’s more of a respect for theater [than in America], every small town has one, and everybody goes — it’s just the thing you do on a Friday night.”

“Millennium Skiva,” a recently revamped piece that’s among the oldest in the Momix repertoire, presents a challenge anyone might understand: What is the range of movement possible when one is buckled into boots and skis?

As might be expected, the two performers who dance “Skiva” stretch the concept to its limit. Their skis tipped skyward, the dome-capped, silver-clad dancers gracefully bend their torsos away from their confining apparatus — the skis begin to look like dangerously unstable stilts.

“It’s all about the visual image,” says Burnsed, who is currently performing “Skiva” on tour.

For her part, Collard believes “a piece of modern dance should stand by itself, without using any special lighting or props.

“When I create a piece of choreography,” she continues thoughtfully, “I like to look at it bare-boned, without any costumes, lighting or special sets. If it can be strong that way, all the other stuff is icing on the cake.”

With Momix, however, it’s the icing that often gets the applause — though behind the scenes, becoming a “dancer/illusionist” requires more in the way of workouts than wizardry.

To perform the futuristic “Skiva,” Burnsed says, “It takes a month or so to get the strength in your calves.

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