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Kerry Clawson  |  October 03, 2011

Botanica offers evening of fantasy

By Kerry Clawson

There are multiple fantastical moments in Momix's Botanica that make you want to scratch your head and ask, "What kind of mind is capable of coming up with this stuff?"

The evening-length dance, an often-stunning visual celebration of nature and its four seasons, comes from the wild imagination of mastermind Moses Pendleton, Momix's founder, artistic director and choreographer. He was inspired by his own flower gardens on his Connecticut property to create a magical botanical piece that has dancers/illusionists transforming into oozing worms, crawling slugs, beautiful flowers and even rocks that become animate.

The show, which premiered in 2009 in Connecticut and played Saturday night at E.J. Thomas Hall in Akron, kicked off DanceCleveland's 2011-12 season.

Its shifting scenes presented a seamless flow of "natural" wonders, with the 10 acrobatic dancers aided by an intricate combination of technology, including huge projections, live video cameras, incredible lighting and special props.

Props feature puppetry

Botanica begins with a huge white rose projected onto the theater backdrop that recedes into the background as a large river of icy-looking silk flows rapidly across the stage. These torrents of melting ice take on an eerie effect as the forms of dancers can be seen rising beneath, with individuals at times standing at an angle, straining to surface as the ice continues to flow.

Puppetry, created by Michael Curry of The Lion King fame, is important in Botanica's props category. That includes a large, white, billowing "fantasy tree-flower'' in the glacial scene, as well as an awesome triceratops puppet that a female dancer rides in on in another scene. Pendleton touches on the viciousness of the natural world when the triceratops eats the woman, who hides within its ribs.

It takes a special kind of dancer to handle the various props in Botanica, from flower skirts to fall tree branches. Dancers also contort into unnatural positions for extended periods of time in this dance, including those portraying the back ends of mythological centaurs. Two dancers create each centaur, with the black-clad dancer in back leaning over during the whole scene to hang onto the front, erect dancer's waist. The centaur partners work their four legs elegantly in tandem to create the movement of a horse.

That's just a small part of the wonderful whimsy of this highly entertaining work, which has thrilled audiences around the world.

Movements mirror nature

Pendleton, a co-founder of Pilobolus, founded his for-profit Momix company 31 years ago in Connecticut. Botanica has some elements of Pilobolus-style shape shifting, including a witty, funny black-lit section where dancers' disembodied, neon appendages create a variety of patterns and animal shapes against the darkness.

But unlike some of Pilobolus' dance theater work, Botanica thankfully does not have elements of clowning. All of the dancers' movements serve to enhance the myriad illusions of the natural world, enabling the images they create to go beyond mere spectacle.

One scene most reminiscent of an elaborate circus routine comes as a female dancer wears a tent-like contraption on her head with streams of beads coming down around her.

She's referred to in Pendleton's program notes, written as a poem, as "the Beaded Web," rotating and whirling in awe-inspiring configurations.

Music ranges from bird calls to classical Vivaldi to techno beats in this dance, where audiences learn to expect the unexpected. One of my favorite sections came with a solitary dancer moving supine on a large, raked mirror, which created cool tricks of the eye every time she slowly bent her limbs. The symmetrical visual made one think of a seed beginning to germinate.

Later, three couples were so closely and lyrically entwined in their floor dance, they appeared to be shoots emerging from the ground.

Flowers integral to dance

Pendleton's love of flowers is an integral part of Botanica, including four women in feathered, beaded sunflower headpieces that featured the most traditional, balletic movement. Unexpectedly, they became skirts that moved lower and lower as each dancer's legs "grew'' into the flowers' stems.

The least-inspiring part of Botanica, unfortunately, comes near the end, as the full ensemble performs with branches of fall leaves. But no one could forget the fabulous thunderstorm visuals earlier, created with live video and ending with a pair of dancers enveloped in large white sails of fabric swirling up like funnel clouds.


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