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Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer  |  January 22, 2016

Momix returns to DanceCleveland series seeking dance gold with 'Alchemia' (preview)

CLEVELAND, Ohio Put down that remote. The vibrant, magical imagery now en route to Cleveland beats anything on TV.

"Alchemia," the latest work by Momix, may not have a plot or any dialogue. But it is sure to entertain, and likely to enrapture. For every single tableau will be fashioned out of the human body.

"The challenge is creating illusions, and not letting anyone see the effort," said Moses Pendleton, artistic director of Momix, one of the most iconic and successful dance troupes of the last 35 years and the latest offering on the 60th-anniversary season of DanceCleveland.

"We have to be able to go out on a mission to the other side. We never know what we're going to make."

Pendleton here is talking about the company's creative modus operandi, its distinctive habit of trading traditional choreography for collective exploration and brainstorming. Famous fruits of that process include such bewitching shows as "Opus Cactus" and "Botanica."

Really, though, he could have been speaking just as easily of "Alchemia," the troupe's latest main production.

Inspired by the ancient practice of alchemy, the evening-length work from 2012 seeks to distill dance gold out of basic elements, to capture through movement the physical essence of fire, water, earth and air. Describing how Momix researched and developed the work, he spoke of boiling, heating and accelerating.

"I found it very energizing," Pendleton said, "to learn about a system where you had to pick up speed to get things done, to perfect the organism. It [alchemy] wasn't just a bunch of hocus-pocus. There was more to it than that."

Like many great works of art, "Alchemia" began over a whiskey. Pendleton said he and a friend were enjoying a drink once known as "fire water" when a light went on in his head.

Seeking first to conjure fire, he placed his female dancers in red dresses and asked them to turn themselves into human flames. Onto them he then cast video of tinted fire, evoking water.

Then came several of the 20 total musical excerpts in "Alchemia," drawn from the realms of classical, film and popular music. Later scenes, he said, employ angled mirrors, wires, and elaborate costumes such as hoop skirts. The whole work also begins with an original, free-association poem.

"We just layered it on like we were making a movie," Pendleton explained. "It was like going to an art museum and looking at paintings. We didn't have a story. We had one image leading into another."

Throughout it all, Pendleton said he acted not as a choreographer imposing his will but rather as an "energizer" or "shaman," guiding his dancers through an exploratory process, the arc and end of which emerged naturally.

Forget TV. Even in its own realm, the world of dance, Momix has no equal.

With "Alchemia," Pendleton said, the company "reached for something deep inside, and let it come out. We didn't know exactly what we were going to do. We just had some notion of what we were trying to achieve."

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