The title of this piece should serve as a warning: “passion” evokes grandeur and beauty, but is overused. In the case of this 1991 MOMIX work, “Passion” refers to the title of Peter Gabriel's score for the film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” on which the dance/theater work is built. I'll admit to some trepidation when I opened the program and discovered this fact, especially when I could find no reference there to when the work was created. The score by now has achieved the sort of mythic status that makes any use of it feel almost trite in the dance realm -- like hearing the opening of “Carmina Burana” over an epic battle sequence during a movie preview.
The film came out in 1988. For the next decade, let's say, that score was endlessly re-discovered and worshipped by amorous college students and budding choreographers alike. That MOMIX (under the direction of Moses Pendleton), three years after the film/score's debut, re-worked the music's potency into movement, light and multi-media imagery was a bold and ambitious step. But it just doesn't hold up.
The short segments into which the score is divided force short segments on stage. For the first half of “Passion,” this works just fine -- piecing together fantastic images is what this company does. Bodies morph into shapes animal or completely alien, while projected images adorn a transparent scrim across the front of the stage. Etched in light (often red), the dancers in their creaturely or otherworldly poses shine through the scrim with startling brilliancy.
But what's actually going on? The shifting images on the scrim (trees, ancient goddesses, the torso of Michelangelo's “David,” the face of Christ, a row of bodhisattva sculptures) seem intended to lend profundity to the proceedings onstage. And certainly, the dancers depict moments of physical and emotional passion and sensuality. From the opening section I thought that this would just be a loosely-structured series of “passionate” images set to this cool music; it doesn't seem grandiose, despite the score and the title.
And this seemed true until about halfway through, when suddenly three dancers appeared on their knees in hooded red velvet, Renaissance-style dresses, and literalism came crashing across the stage like a runaway elephant. During the ensuing scenes of what I assume encompassed the crucifixion (three dancers, the center man in a loincloth only, suspended over the stage in various poses of suffering and frenzy) and resurrection, I sank down in my seat, flummoxed. The action slowed, grew portentous, and killed the little momentum the piece had been developing. This despite the gorgeous dancers and their often astounding physical feats of balance, strength and flexibility. MOMIX, I wanted to cry, let your dancers shine. Transform us through their strength and courage, but don't try to tell us too much.
MOMIX's “Passion” runs through Jan. 15 at The University of Richmond Modlin Center at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $8-$38. Call 289-8980 or visit www.modlin.richmond.edu.