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Theatre Review by Jose Solís - July 4, 2017

Rebecca Rasmussen, Steven Ezra,
Amanda Hulen, & Greg Dearmond
Photo by Charles Azzopardi

The question of why shows are revived doesn't always seem to be at the center of the conversation when companies bring back productions that were once praised. When Moses Pendleton's Momix premiered Cactus Opus in the early aughts, the world was a different place, and its celebration of the American Southwest was acknowledged for its beauty and bravura. The current revival at The Joyce Theater (through July 16) however, arrives at a time when cultural appropriation and the mainstream obliteration of people of color has rightfully taken a bigger role in the collective conversation, and the production despite retaining its aesthetic value and showcasing an impressive technical display, leaves a bitter aftertaste because it features a predominantly white cast using elements of non-white cultures —Aboriginal Australian, Middle Eastern and Native American people—to create vapid entertainment.

The show is divided into 18 vignettes, which range from the straightforward ("Sundance") to the positively surreal ("Desert Blooms"), each of them allowing the eleven dancers in the company to push their bodies to extremes. In the strangely amusing "Ostrich of the Imagination," we see dancers become tall birds, and as is the case during many parts of the show, we wonder how did they pull it off? All of the dancers seem capable of acquiring otherworldly shapes, sometimes they even seem to separate themselves from their own limbs, creating tableaux that recall early cinema. In fact during one of the first vignettes, the dancers rely on glow-in-the-dark spheres that they use to create a larger being.

Steven Ezra & Jason Williams
Photo by Eddy Fernandez

The subject of deities and superhuman creatures is a recurring theme in the show, which often has the dancers take part in what seem like rituals, including one called "Fire Walker" in which Greg Dearmond lies on the floor wearing shoes that are literally on fire, which he uses to draw shapes using his muscular legs as brushes. In the stunning "Dream Catcher", two dancers atop an enormous gyroscope engage in a life and death waltz which sees them manipulate the structure, without forgetting its scope and the threats it could present.

If the show had been populated by more esoteric numbers rather than pieces like the ickily titled "First Contact" in which dancers perform a tribal dance preceded by a prologue read in an ancestral language, perhaps the show would have felt less uncomfortable to sit through. Was it that hard for Momix to cast dancers who wouldn't make the numbers feel like they were being performed in redface? At one point during the show the woman sitting behind me reached out to explain to her little son that what he was seeing were "the first Americans", his conflicted "huh?" perfectly encompassed what it was like to sit in 2017 watching a show meant for the 19th century.

Through July 16
The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue at the corner of 19th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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