Feb. 5 at TPAC’s Jackson Hall
TPAC pulled a double-header last weekend as Rent continued its run and the Momix dance troupe came out to play Baseball. This latter company is a favorite of Nashville audiences, and it was good to see them move out of their usual Langford Auditorium confines and onto the more adequate stage at TPAC. The dancers must have loved having real dressing rooms for a changeinstead of being forced to change in Langford’s trailerswhile the techies were able to take full advantage of TPAC’s facilities with huge screened projections and floating baseballs and bats.
With this piece, Momix and its director/choreographer Moses Pendleton seem to have entered a whole new level of artistic maturity. A cross-country ski champion, Pendleton began dancing late in life, while a college student at Dartmouth in the ’60s. His first troupe was the highly physical modern-dance ensemble Pilobolus, formed in 1971. Some 10 years later, Pendleton split off to exercise his quirky humor in Momix. His style with this newer group has most often been characterized by short pieces that develop a theme, often a comical metaphor highlighted by all kinds of goofy fabricated props.
This latest production differs from much of Pendleton’s previous work in that the choreographer has dared to present a full-length piecean ambition generally eschewed by modern dancers after Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. Despite the high level of chuckles per minute, it shows that he deserves to be taken seriously.
Baseball is an evening-long meditation upon one subject, starting with the sport’s imagined origins. In ”Bush League,“ the choreographer envisions cavemen who inadvertently discover possibilities for fun and games when their clubs smash into round-shaped rocks. From there, Pendleton uses his subject to explore all sorts of thematic material: In ”Bat Habits,“ female dancers manipulate their bats into bat wings à la Swan Lake or form themselves into a sculling team skimming over the water. Then, for a change of pace, Pendleton mourns the great and famous in ”Requiem for a Slugger,“ an elegy danced by two couples who slowly drape themselves about two arches. In an exquisite appeal to the senses, ”The Wind-Up“ features a wonderful dancer, unidentified in the program, who grasps an oversized baseball in one hand as she spins herself into an ecstatic trance highly reminiscent of Laura Dean’s minimalist meanderings. Pendleton may not be the first person to use baseball as a metaphor for all kinds of experience, but he does it with a distinctly witty vision.
The choreographer has also broken from his past work by fully integrating a sound and light show into his latest piece, both during segments and between them. At various points, photographs were projected onto a stage-wide scrim, then voices might be heard, or a dancer might appear briefly.
In ”The Wind-Up,“ architectural silhouettes and Indian music were both used to great effect. In the end, though, it was the dancers who carried the showwhich hasn’t always been the case in the past. Here, the ”jokes“ didn’t become the focus because the choreographer kept his attention on the larger thematic framework.
Not that Pendleton has cast aside his fabled sense of humor. Puns, both verbal and visual, abounded. Children in the audience burst into loud belly laughs when five or six giant beer cans strewn about the stage began to wriggle. The kids laughed even louder when arms, legs, and dancers’ heads popped out, and the cans began a wild series of popular ’60s dances such as the Swim. The wittiest and most appealing episode commenced with the fingers of a huge baseball glove waving about languidly like a giant sea anemone. Each finger consisted of a real person swaying back and forth inside the brown leather fabric. Ever so slowly, a giant baseball moved closer and closer until the glove snatched it and a crunching sound reverberated throughout the theater. The glove opened fully to reveal Botticelli’s Venus reclining on the half shell.
Moses Pendleton’s affectionate homage to baseball, with its remarkably broad appeal, contrasted noticeably to ”Jazz-Dance,“ which played last week at Vanderbilt University. Danny Buraczeski’s choreography is remarkably cerebral, something of a parallel to the ”cool“ jazz of the ’50s and nothing like Bob Fosse’s dynamic and blatantly sexual brand of Broadway jazz. Buraczeski’s output seemed tired, even timid in its conception, although I will concede that it looked like much more fun to perform than it was to watch. Pendleton’s work scored on both counts.
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