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The Carolina Theatre of Durham presented an unusual Valentine's Day program on February 14. Moses Pendleton's troupe MOMIX danced his "Passion" — not an exploration of romantic love but of the passion of the Christ, and the development of what we call Christian love. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this dance theatre work is its visual linking of Christian themes with other cultural expressions of the Eternal Return.
Moses Pendleton was an early member of Pilobolus, and that foundation is immediately clear when viewing his choreography, which, like that of Pilobolus, often depends on the grouping of bodies to create illusions of larger animate bodies or inanimate structures from his almost unbelievably supple and acrobatic dancers. But Pendleton is less concerned with generating hyper-awareness of kinetic human physicality within the charged arena of three-dimensional stage-space than he is with generating a stream of ideas and images that we comprehend more cinematically than sculpturally.
The entirety of "Passion" occurred behind a scrim lit with rear projection video images that faded in and out with the same relentless flow as the Peter Gabriel music to which the piece is set. The twenty-one musical sections, all from the score of the Martin Scorsese film, The Last Temptation of Christ, suffer from a certain lack of dramatic force — that is, their emotional level remains nearly constant, without either peaks or valleys of feeling. They just move right along, replete with interesting sounds, very cerebral, with nothing that rips away your emotional defenses. The flow of projected images is similar — a clever tour of world art that reinforces the universality of the idea of redemptive death and resurrection — but again, without any powerful, soul-engaging, dramatic arc – and with a few distracting inclusions. (What was that Bronzino portrait doing in there?)
Sandwiched, as it were, between these layers of sound and light, and literally blurred by the scrim, the impact of the remarkable choreography and movement of the five dancers was blunted. But remarkable and gorgeous it was. For much of the piece, the dancers were minimally clothed in sheer, flesh-toned bits of Lycra, revealing the magnificence of their bodies and allowing clear and inventive shape-making. Later, form-fitting costuming in red, some clever, minimal props, and some aerial work pumped up the narrative aspect — we could easily see the Stations of the Cross. The flagellation scene was amazing and easily the most compelling image of the night, with the dancer whipping a long ribbon of red and moving through its path.
But despite such imaginative and beautiful movement, "Passion" left me unmoved. I found myself uncomfortable with this particular form of artifice that makes the dancers a canvas for the flow of virtual imagery. It is instructive to contrast this work with Rennie Harris' "Facing Mekka," in which the kinetic power and immediate, sweating physicality of the dancers was augmented by video projections behind them. As beautiful as the MOMIX "Passion" was at times, there was no particular need to see it live. By its very intellectual and imagistic nature, it broke the unmediated connection to the dancers' physical reality that lies at the heart of Dance's power. We might as well have watched it on film.