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Review: Momix’s “Alice” is a rabbit hole (or 22) too far

Review: Momix’s “Alice” is a rabbit hole (or 22) too far

Dance critic Edwin Denby once wrote: “Everyday life is wonderfully full of things to see.” That observation came to mind on Thursday during Momix’s “Alice,” a banal and busy 85-minute show now at the Joyce Theater. Not that anything particularly strange was going on; quite the opposite. At the time of the show, the thought of just going outdoors into the city night – to watch the traffic, or the sunset, or the people in the streets – was more tempting than any fantasy depicted on stage.

Known for his illusionist extravaganzas, Momix, which was founded 42 years ago by choreographer Moses Pendleton, has turned to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” as inspiration for his latest. Perceived and directed by Pendleton, the work revolves around short, prop- and costume-driven vignettes – 22 of them – loosely derived from Carroll’s world. Aside from the recurring appearances of several Alice, who tend to drift in and out and look lost, there is not much that holds these scenes together; they read as replaceable parts. If you are looking for some serious engagement with narrative or storytelling, this is not the rabbit hole for you.

The opening is about as good as it gets, with a simple elegance that afterwards feels refreshing. Against a projection of a river and a lush green landscape, Jade Primicias (the first of Alice) sits on a horizontally hanging ladder and reads a book with the character’s name. The ladder begins to spin (assisted by another practitioner), while her feet graze on the floor in a slightly demarcating motion. This is how her descent begins.

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From there, there is an onslaught of attempts at psychedelic images, which often land closer to the mundane or vaguely offensive. Among many creatures and caricatures, we meet a herd of wild rabbits, the occasion for the night’s most athletic dance (many shared leaps); a trio of jovial brace-clad Mad Hatters; and a multitude of queens, representing all playing card colors. Acrobatic tricks and lifts characterize the neat choreography, at times with objects such as exercise balls or rolling platforms. Costumes with their own lives distort and expand the body.

Projected backgrounds, reminiscent of low-resolution screensavers, try to transport us. We are on the beach; now we are in the jungle. The high-energy soundtrack, a crowded and peripatetic playlist, seems to evoke a non-specific sense of “the exotic.” A scene called “The Tweedles”, which combines Bollywood music with sparkling white baby masks, aims to be fun; it appears clumsy and careless. The most genuinely trippy scene is the shady “Cracked Mirrors”, where reflective props and spider lighting work together, together with the dancers, to disorient.

“Alice” is physically demanding, and the small cast of eight dancers deserves credit for taking on the heavy load, which can obviously not only be strenuous, but also dangerous. On Thursday, during a scene where cloaked figures sneak around with large round protrusions on their backs – their faces and bodies wrapped in elastic material – a dancer fell off the scene, and not on purpose. The audience gasped; it looked painful. The fallen artist managed to climb back up and into the wings, and fortunately, said a publicist for the company, was not injured.

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Yet the incident revealed the dangers of this type of work, emphasizing a nagging question: When wonder can come to us in so many forms, is “Alice” really worth the risk?

Alice

Through July 24 at the Joyce Theater; joyce.org.

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