“We really ought to check out more of these non-music shows—that was fantastic,” said a couple upon leaving the opening of MOMIX’s Botanica at Meany Hall on October 31. This was a heartening statement to overhear: the glorious sound of dance fans in the making. Their words are a testament to the smart programming of the UW World Series, which brings a steady stream of world class music, dance, and theater events to Seattle, and an even bigger testament to MOMIX’s power to engage a broad audience with their multimedia, costume, and puppet-filled spectacles. Moses Pendleton’s “company of dancer-illusionists” (as the program aptly describes them) puts on a show that appeals to everyone from working dancers to kids to dance newbies.
Botanica’s subject is the natural world, full of color and light and dark, and it brings to life a wide range of creatures, plants, and even weather phenomena. Following the course of a year, it is split in two parts, Winter Spring and Summer Fall. The program’s poetic synopsis has plenty of wordplay: “Owls Hoot/the Arrival/of centaurs/Amid Summer Night’s Dream,” which is cleverly reflected in the dance. Yes, there were centaurs, each made by two high-stepping dancers linked together in a more elegant variant of front-horse and back-horse. The ten dancers who performed the ninety-minute work seemed surprisingly few when they assembled for an encore and curtain call. Because they populated a diverse natural world, they went through a number of costume, character, and, indeed, species changes. They accomplished these with great skill and artistry, morphing from one role to the next as if they’d been born in it.
The opening section of Winter Spring featured a stark winter atmosphere created by a giant white cloth covering the stage. Bathed in blue light, the cloth blew and rippled, like wind whipping over snow. Dancers emerged from the moving cloth, and the contrast of upright figures on a horizontal landscape was heightened by a tall, white, umbrella-like structure which one of the performers made spin and shift its shape. This was the first of many structures that towered over the dancers, always controlled by them, but sometimes also seeming to control them. At times, the choreography took place in darkness: in a humorous trio, three dancers revealed glow-in-the-dark forearms and legs. The body parts, disconnected by darkness from the whole human body, merged with each other to form birds, snakes, and even ballerinas. One of the first half’s most poignant dances showed a single performer, almost nude, moving atop a slanted mirrored platform. Her solo evoked the story of Narcissus, in love with his own reflection in the water, and became a live, human kaleidoscope as well.
Summer Fall began with a vivid depiction of a summer storm, with swirling dancers in white both on stage and projected through a film, whose blurriness added to the storm’s nightmarish chaos. Strobe lights served as lightning and created an illusion of a dancer flying through the air, borne on the wind. After the storm, one performer came out wearing a tent-like veil of beads, and began to spin. The beads rose around her, kept aloft by the dervish-like spinning, making her resemble a flying seed pod. As summer morphed into fall, the dancers at last appeared mostly human—or perhaps like magical forest people—and brought out great trees which they twirled, tilted, and partnered in increasingly complex patterns. Snow fell, and the white snow-cloth from the opening returned, enveloping the dancers back into the wintry earth.
Much of Botanica’s choreography functioned as a variation on spinning and skittering—both of which were effective in evoking a broad range of life—and the dancers made their costumes seem like true extensions of their bodies. One could say that their skill was more evident in sections unencumbered by costumes, but this underplays their extreme skill in fusing their costumes, props, or puppets with their own body and skillfully evoke each creature through their movement. The centaurs were one example of this, as were a group of flowers who handled their bright, fluffy costumes with ease as the skirts evolved from bushy tutu to flamenco skirt during their dance. However, sometimes a minimalist costume made the character shine forth, such as when a group of hornets evoked their insect-ness merely by the precise jerks of the head and scratching movements of the legs. Still, it was a welcome variation when the costume added little extra to the dancer, and their considerable classical training shone on its own.
Under Pendleton’s thematic conception and direction, Botanica is the collaborative effort of many designers, builders and support staff, including puppet design from Michael Curry (of Lion King fame); costumes constructed by Phoebe Katzin; and lighting design by Joshua Starbuck and Pendleton. The broad range of art and artists on stage heavily contributes to MOMIX’s divers appeal: it’s highly visual, it’s spectacle, and it’s movement that remains accessible and entertaining while still being inventive.