Auditorium Theatre

June 10

With a dance-theater company like Connecticut-based Momix, once you’ve seen their imaginative and whimsical tricks, you seek them out again and again, as an addict seeks the assured immediate pleasures of his drug. The dancers have many sleights of hand (and foot) to offer, dancing on stilts or skis, with flashlights or fans, or in huge rolling sculptures. While the dancers are limber and adroit and their works clever, it seems to me they simply don’t mean anything–what you see is what you get, a sure, sudden thrill, unencumbered by any “big picture.” Combined with the new-age music group Shadowfax, Momix provided an evening of pure escapism.

Shadowfax is on a coast-to-coast tour to promote its new album, Folksongs for a Nuclear Village, marking a departure from the Windham Hill label and a new venture with Capitol. Their one-night stand in Chicago was a homecoming for the group, which started in the early 1970s on the south side. Now based in Los Angeles, Shadowfax has added a “global” perspective to its blues-jazz core, incorporating African, Indian, and Asian strains. While I always thought of them as typically Windham Hill-wispy, they sound surprisingly loud and hard when heard live, dominated by saxophone, flute, and electric violin.

The collaboration with Momix evolved from the two groups’ gradual attraction toward each other–saxophonist Chuck Greenberg had been a fan of the dance company for several years before learning that Momix founder Moses Pendleton (also a founder and artistic director of Pilobolus Dance Theatre) had choreographed a number of works to Shadowfax music. Momix and Shadowfax are indeed a perfect match: the reedy, exotic sounds evoke an otherworldliness and dreaminess mirrored in the dancers’ bizarre, sensual style.

Yet the performance posed a few problems. Two different audiences were merged, and dance fans such as myself flinched a little at the decibel level of the rock-concert output. But more importantly, the dancers were sometimes hard to follow when sharing the stage with the band. The Shadowfax musicians (Greenberg, Charles Bisharat, David Lewis, Phil Maginny, Stuart Nevitt, and G.E. Stinson) were the dominant presence. The percussionist and keyboardist sat on separate raised platforms, and the ensemble was surrounded by a legion of instruments. The four skinny Momix dancers (Lisa Giobbi, Tim Latta, Joseph Mills, and Caroline Minor) were sometimes lost among the glitter.

For this reason, the most effective dance pieces were the few in which the band was hidden behind a darkened scrim. Opening the concert was a work formed not so much of dancing but of illusion. Peering out of complete blackness onstage were four lights forming a large square suspended in space. As the lights flickered on and off, sometimes maintaining the square, sometimes swaying back and forth, the construction gradually became apparent–two dancers each had another dancer on his or her shoulders, and each one held a light. The simple, rhythmic piece was a good introduction to the concert, a foreshadowing that all would not be as it initially seemed.

The use of illusion was never cleverer than in Lisa Giobbi’s untitled work in progress, performed to the band’s “Behind Green Eyes.” A woman appears seated onstage with a giant fan spread before her like a skirt. She slowly rises, swaying gently, stepping lightly, but something about her is not quite right–her calves are facing front. Ah ha! She’s really two people; another dancer is so carefully concealed behind her, supporting her piggyback, that the pair look like one. They exit and enter again, each proudly holding a fan against her back as if it were a great cockscomb. They swirl about in a semicrouch, coming together to form a circle with their fans. One is suddenly seated in midair, the giant circle looming behind her like a halo. She waves her arms and legs slowly in front of her, floating for several minutes, invisibly supported by the other woman. The lights darken before the secret is revealed.

“Circle Walker,” a solo for man and machine, was performed to a specially commissioned score. A man initially appears to be in a star-shaped metal cage, yet when it shifts to the side, we see it is nearly a ball, roughly composed of two intersecting circles, so it can roll. The sculpture looked like the greatest toy ever invented, as the dancer rolled around inside it, grasped an outer edge of it and flew about as he clung to it, suspended himself upside down within it, brought it to rest on a dime as he perched atop it in arabesque.

The impact of “Skiva,” in which two dancers wear weighted skis, and are able to defy gravity as they pitch forward and arch back with stunning flexibility, was muddled. Performed to “Another Country,” one of Shadowfax’s most popular soft drum- and flute-flavored tunes, the dancers were scarcely discernible in black unitards, their slow, liquid movement overshadowed.

Much of the time, the dancers seemed to be incorporated only as part of the light show. They were important not so much for their physical interpretation of the music, but for the way the light played on their bodies. Often the dancers were hidden, throwing flowing, rippling shadows on a scrim dropped either before or behind the band.