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Review: MOMIX goes through the looking glass

A colorful rendition of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’ and ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ brings illusion to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

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Dancers performed partnered inversions, balances, and acrobatic holds in “Garden of Live Creatures” from MOMIX’s production of “ALICE.” Photo by Equilibre Monaco. 

On Wednesday, May 3, the Connecticut-based movement company MOMIX performed their newest 90-minute spectacle, ALICE, the final production of White Bird‘s 25th Anniversary Season. Formed in 1981 by artistic Director Moses Pendleton, a co-founder of Pilobolus Dance Theater, MOMIX has toured internationally to five continents over the last few decades, showing original works rooted in circus, theatre, acrobatics, and aerial dance.

ALICE, based on Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and the various Alice in Wonderland tales many of us know fondly from our childhoods, followed the traditional Alice route with a twist. 

“I don’t intend to retell the whole Alice story,” writes Pendleton on the company’s website, “but to use it as a taking off point for invention. I’m curious to see what will emerge, and I’m getting curiouser and curiouser the more I learn about Lewis Carroll, who like me was a devoted photographer.”

At the start of the evening, the audience at the packed Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was treated to a welcome respite from the ordinary. The music — a familiar Alice tune from Disney’s 1951 animated classic Alice in Wonderland — rang through the speakers while a gigantic video image of Lewis Carroll was projected, depicting him with written phrases exiting his mouth a la the “Who Are You?” caterpillar. Then the curtains parted and the show began.

The first section of the work titled “Summer Day” opened with an Alice character in a white dress suspended mid-air reading a book that read the word “Alice”. As she flipped the book upside down and began to shift and move, it could be seen that she sat atop a ladder hanging parallel to the stage, beautifully cantilevered by a dancer wearing men’s fine attire at the other end, seemingly meant to represent Carroll. Behind them was projected a calm summer day in an idyllic meadow. The dance progressed, first involving see-saw weight shifts and evolving into a swing-like act as the ladder turned perpendicular to the stage, sending Alice high up on its end. The curtain closed and a pair of glowing shoes ran before it. Alice stumbled across three doors that became larger and smaller thanks to the expert video projection designed by Woodrow F. Dick III, revealing to Alice more iterations of herself behind each one. Soon after, the matching dancers all slowly descended, or rather melted one by one, into white tubes representing rabbit holes. They had tumbled into Wonderland.

As the evening progressed, familiar characters took the stage, some in puppet form and some in abstract iterations. Three white puppets with blonde hair stood nearly 30 feet tall, swaying madly while controlled by dancers standing atop each other’s shoulders underneath their billowing skirts. There was “The Mad Queen of Hearts”, who dangled from bright red aerial bungees while she bounced, heel-clicked, turned, and swirled in place, while surrounded below by her loyal cards made of dancers donning stretched fabric embellished with hearts, spades, and clubs.

MOMIX’s “ALICE” was the final performance of White Bird’s 25th Anniversary year. Photo by Sharen Bradford.

The Caterpillar, a striking single-character entity smoking a hookah in most typical Alice renditions, was deconstructed into a series of performers carrying blue exercise balls, first holding them together to form a caterpillar shape and later bouncing them, tossing them, and rolling over them; their black and turquoise unitard costumes somewhat reminiscent of Merce Cunningham’s costumes designed by Dove Bradshaw and Paul Taylor Dance Company’s unitard pieces from the early 1990s. There were magical mushrooms in hoop skirts and headpieces, strange spherical creatures with purple Treasure Troll hair, church-like stained glass imagery during the “Trial of The Fallen Cards”, levitating mirrors, mad hatters with yellow and orange garbage can hats, floating paper roses on sticks, and a momentary spider in “The Wolf-Spied-Her”. 

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The highlight of the evening was “The Tweedles” scene; four dancers wearing cardboard cutouts of baby heads, two crying and two pursing their lips, along with nude shorts and tops. The music from the Indian Hindi-language musical film Taal, performed by Alka Yagnik and Udit Narayan, combined effortlessly with the paired-down concept and slinky yet recognizable choreography to deliver one of the more satisfying and humorous sections of ALICE. Performed with ease, the dancers shifted their masks towards the audience as they changed directions, creating the illusion of both an inchworm traveling above ground and a group of otherworldly beings performing haughtily for their onlookers.

Later, the audience was treated to some strength-driven partnering evocative of Pilobolus’s early works and imagery of the company from photographer Lois Greenfield’s Antigravity series. Four “Garden of Life” dancers in a tree-like landscape wore botanical-patterned leggings and unitards. Split into two pairs, they exhibited mesmerizing partnered inversions, balances, and acrobatic holds, mirroring each other to the best of their abilities. In closing, the story’s Alice, in a dress whose skirts reached humungous proportions, ascended towards the sky to the sound of Jefferson Airplane’s “Go Ask Alice”, the entire set projected upon with purple, green, and blue tie dye hues.

MOMIX’s ALICE invited the viewer on a bright and imaginative journey full of intricate prop mastering, amicable characters, a mismatched poppy soundtrack, larger-than-life video art, and experimentation with a tried and true tale through abstract imagery and loosely bound narrative themes. Despite some basic and repetitive choreography throughout, which at times felt was being held aloft by eccentric props alone, the show did not fail to please with moments of illusion, strength, and jabs of humor, all of which the small cast of eight dancers pulled off without a hitch. Overall, ALICE managed to be what so many dance shows often cannot: a whole lot of fun.

On tap for White Bird’s 2023/2024 season are several internationally touring companies, including Pilobolus and Camille A. Brown in October; Ephrat Asherie Dance and Abby Z and the New Utility in November; Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater next March, and others.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.

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