In March 2016, I visited the (Dale) Chihuly exhibit at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona. I went at night. The papery heat of the day drained away. Walking the chilly, dimly lit paths, I mistook bendy-armed saguaro and stocky barrel cacti for people. Pink and yellow prickly pear flowers glowed like candles. Chihuly’s fantastic glass sculptures were hardly more alien than some of the desert natives, with their elaborate defences and Dr. Seuss shapes.
Almost 20 years after its creation, Moses Pendleton’s Opus Cactus provokes similar feelings of stepping into a delightful, unknowable landscape. There’s danger and death in this bone-dry country, but enchantment too; dreams and mirages, ancient form, order and rhythm.
Part 1 of Opus Cactus portrays the desert’s natural denizens, as MOMIX’s “dancer-illusionists” transform and contort into all manner of flora and fauna. A wren’s quick, angular movements are silhouetted against a fiery red sky. Precariously balanced couples become majestically strutting ostriches. A desert storm brings a ballet of glow-in-the-dark tumbleweeds. Dancers zip around the stage lying on skateboards, interacting in curious, lizard-like rituals.
In one of the shortest but most mesmerizing tableaux, a group of women slowly unfurl their red-trimmed white skirts, whirling until they become luscious, Georgia O’Keeffe blooms. Costume designer Phoebe Katzin’s sexy shapes and vibrant palette of scarlet, emerald green, bronze, black and cream magnify the work’s steamy undercurrent of sensuality.
In the second half, we are pulled into a world of legend, myth and spirituality. With its references to totems, fire walkers and golden icons, this section can track a little too close to pastiche and cultural appropriation for comfort. Pendleton’s choreography has more impact, visually and emotionally, when it remains abstract and lyrical. Like in the gorgeous Sundance, where four women dressed in papyrus white manipulate huge paper fans and their own strong limbs into stunning hieroglyphic images.
There’s one more performance of Opus Cactus on Tuesday night.