Rehearsed Formulas: Momix and Loïe Fuller
Momix is a dance company that combines acrobatic movement with specialized production design to create works focused around visual play, optical illusion, and theatrical whimsy. Originally derived from a performance for the Moscow winter Olympic opening ceremony in 1980, their work has been featured in television shows, advertisements, and corporate car shows. Viva Momix, like most of their stage shows, is a globally touring production, comprised of short 2 – 5 minute vignettes. Each episode stands alone, like a circus act, and its choreography revolves around a specifically designed costume or prop. Classic works are interspersed with new additions to the repertoire. In one, fluffy orange tulle dresses of pompom shaped ruffles evoke marigolds. The dancers slowly grow and unfurl upward before proceeding to spring around the stage to evoke the movement of the flowers. Another sees male dancers, accompanied by remixed didgeridoo music, performing acrobatic leaps off long wooden poles.
In “Baths of Caracalla,” each dancer holds two white sheets of silky fabric, with a stiff rod sewn into one edge. Held across the waist, with a quick side-to-side shimmy, these evoke jiggling hips and rippling skirts, to which the dancers add suggestive smiles. Unfurling the sheets and twirling the rods, the fabric flutters out into dynamic forms that circle around the performers. The effect is a reiteration of the American dancer Loïe Fuller's now infamous Serpentine Dance of 1892.
Fuller, the grandmother of modern dance and muse of Mallarmé, produced work that today can be seen to share many features with Momix. Fuller's troupe also toured on both sides of the Atlantic. Her evening length performances, although largely solo works, also were composed of a series of short pieces, such as The Fire Dance or La Danse du Lis, each arranged around a technical innovation of costume or lighting. The foundation of her repertoire was the Serpentine Dance, in which she manipulated large sheets of white silk with fitted rods to music along with choreographed colored lights to create an optical sensation of color-changing, shape-shifting wonder. Fuller was an innovator and was among the first to significantly explore UV technology, developing what we now call “Black Light Theater.” Fuller even went so far as to befriend Marie Curie in her quest to obtain radium and manufacture theatrical costumes in her private “laboratory” from the recently discovered material.
For Fuller, who patented many of her lighting and costume technologies, and who had a Pavilion at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle to demonstrate her electrical innovations, the technical wizardry was as much a protagonist of the spectacle as she herself. In Viva Momix, one of their newest pieces, “Light Reins,” works its choreography around LED sticks that, when synchronized with movement, give the impression of light radiating out along their length. Another performance consists of no dancers at all, but just a UV glowing rope that waves across the stage, stimulating sounds of awe from the audience.
A master not just of technique, but of commerce and marketing, Fuller’s genius was to take what began as a theatrical gimmick in a Vaudeville play, isolate it, rebrand it, and present it as something altogether “new and wonderful”—a dance devoid of narrative, and therefore a fertile ground for ruminations of the French poets and academics. Bringing the intellectual milieu into the Folies Bergère for the first time, her work thus managed to bridge a gap between the dazzling showmanship of the cabaret music hall and the poetic musings of an educated audience hoping for a transcendent experience. Momix, too, while performing the visual artistry that affords the company work for TV advertisement, aspires towards creating an elevated experience, with its artistic director Moses Pendleton explaining in an interview that “we try to be evocative and hopefully it stimulates something in [the audience’s] cortex.” Additionally, the company describes its members as “dancer-illusionists,” highlighting their work’s merging of optical trickery and the established genre of dance.
An epitome of Art Nouveau, as Rancière articulates astutely, Fuller also inhabits another binary: that between nature and artifice, “where spirit will become entirely material while matter will be fully converted into spirit.”1 In this dualism, the complex technical necessities (Fuller would often use 38 or more technicians) and her own strenuous physical task of manipulating vast swathes of fabric, could be balanced with a vision of pure, “natural,” beauty. To enact this, Fuller had to both maintain the image of the laboring inventor and the instinctive artist; her works were both the product of skill and natural accident. Momix replays this same script. Their biography opens by describing the company as “known internationally for presenting work of exceptional inventiveness and physical beauty,” thereby immediately rearticulating this same positioning between craft, which is pitched as invention, and beauty, which is articulated as natural and innate. For both Fuller and Momix, this straddling of two creative modes, highly skilled invention, and unconscious natural beauty, were resolved in the process of trial and error. Repetitive experimentation became an effective way to develop choreography around a newly designed lighting element or prop; yet it also reaffirms the strenuous craft of the artist, as well as the importance bestowed on chance, which is perceived necessary for discovering natural harmony. In a newspaper interview, Fuller explained how “it is endless work… my eyes would recognize a false combination at once, and alter it until I got what was right.”2 Meanwhile Pendleton similarly says their process, “takes hours of working in the costume while studying each movement you do to see how it affects the image as a whole… everything is trial and error.”
This dualism of natural beauty versus artificial manifestation is evident in the works themselves. In “Man Fan,” the performer carries a vast expanse of silk in the air above their head. The dancer manipulates it so the silk billows out over the audience like a wave, its towering slow undulations mesmerizing under the projections and lights. Yet at the same time, we can notice the various poles that support its weight, affixed to the dancer who adeptly buffers its movements. The piece is reminiscent of Fuller’s La Danse du Lys, the largest variation on the Serpentine Dance. In this work, she would throw a huge expanse of fabric above her and, with poles, pivot and turn to evoke a lily flower. In Fuller’s own writing, she was explicit about taking inspiration directly from nature, recalling “the murmur of the watercourses, the rattling of rain on dry leaves, all the sounds of still water and the raging sea…”3 Pendleton, in an interview, also describes how,
Our company is in the country, I have large gardens of sunflowers and marigolds, and I’m really enthusiastic about growing things, plants, water, rocks, nature. It’s very magical to me—I continue to find a lot of inspiration in a rotting tree stump.
As with Fuller, Pendleton, has staged his dances in gardens. For both Fuller and Pendleton, there was meaning in placing the dances adjacent to the forms from which they took inspiration. This strong emphasis on the “natural” character of their work perhaps allows these choreographers to rebalance the conceptual positioning of work that is so bound to theatrical gimmick and artificial stagecraft.
The significant difference between these practitioners, aside from the century between them, is that while Fuller primarily performed her own choreography, Pendleton remains absent from the stage. And while Fuller, particularly in the latter end of her career, would focus on lighting design and choreograph on other dancers, both have firmly asserted their name over their work. Pendleton’s name appears directly under the company title, and then a further seventeen times in the program as a choreography credit under each individual work. For Fuller, who had to battle many imitators, there was an imperative to associate her name with work that was essentially comprised of new innovations in stagecraft, which were quickly disseminated and then appropriated by other cabaret and theater artists.
However, for Pendleton, Momix’s choreography is not at the forefront of cutting-edge technological invention. With virtual reality and 3D imaging among a vast plethora of today’s technological advancements, Momix can in no way claim the same level of innovation that Fuller could. Her work, such as her experiments with radioactive substances, lay at the forefront of technological advancement in stagecraft; her audience came to see her dance as much as to witness the fabulous materialization of the new power of electricity. It makes sense, therefore, that Momix’s choreography places less emphasis on stage lighting and more on the feats of the human body. For a contemporary audience, already saturated in technological advancement, there is a desire to witness the strength, athleticism, and dexterity of the company’s performers; the skilled performing body is the spectacle.
This is not to say that Momix’s rehearsing of an older script, both on and off stage, makes its works redundant. On the contrary, Momix should be appreciated as one of many characters in a much older lineage of American dance and performance. Watching the performances today highlights the bizarre idiosyncratic nature of its choreography. In “Tuu,” performers evoke animal and bird movements. Dressed in a colored leotard and glittering swimming cap style headpiece, the dancer stands on one leg, and isolated head and feet movements evoke a flamingo. Taking inspiration directly from nature, and liberated from choreographic canons such as ballet, strange lunge-like actions across the stage are unusual and creative. It is true that older works often reinforce racialized and gendered stereotypes, such as the “tribal” qualities of the male didgeridoo dance piece and the climactic emergence of a female figure out of a paper dress. However, in a recent work, “Daddy Long Leg,”cowboys with flannel shirts, chaps and cowboy hats, amble around the stage with a stilt attached to only one of their legs. Camp leaps, reclining poses, and horse-like gestures combine awkwardness with elegance to result in a queer, comic, and delightfully weird piece. Even without technological innovations, there are still new discoveries to be had in the playful trial and error approach of taking a new object or costume as a starting point from which to explore.
- Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art. (Verso Books, 2013)
- Unknown author, newspaper clipping Loï Fuller Collection, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library, f.267b.
- Loï Fuller, Light and Dance (1908)
GEORGE KAN is an artist, writer, and performance maker from London, now based in New York. He holds a BA in Art History (Cambridge, UK) and an MA in Performance Studies (Tisch, New York).