The harsh but exquisite beauty of the desert proved fruitful inspiration for Moses Pendleton, whose evening-length "Opus Cactus," a choreographic landscape painted via fertile -- if sometimes repetitive -- movement, met with resounding cheers Saturday night at George Mason University's Center for the Arts.
Pendleton in his early career was a founding member of Pilobolus, the iconoclastic dance collective that since 1971 has spawned a passel of like-minded troupes; Momix, birthed in the early 1980s, is among its most successful offspring.
"Opus Cactus," performed over two acts, includes 19 mini-landscapes that vividly evoke the flora and fauna of desert climes, from the American Southwest, to the parched Middle East, to barren African lands and arid Far Eastern terrain. In this dry-as-dust climate, Pendleton has unearthed a wellspring of inspiration -- including percussive and vocal scores collected from desert cultures around the world -- from which to draw for his athletically gifted dancers.
Among his most spectacular anthropomorphic creations was a four-man Gila monster, with quivering tongue and green and red reptilian skin that hisses and draws its head and torso up into an exquisite arch, ready to pounce.
A quartet of bare-chested men who bound the stage vaulting and swinging as they clutch long poles is one of a number of segments that rely on props or technical aids -- including harnesses, a floating hammock, skateboards, oversize Oriental fans and bungee cords -- to extend the movement possibilities into the realm of the otherwise unattainable.
Swift, lizardlike dancers glide across the stage, their bodies prone on skateboardlike dollies, skirting the space hands clawed, feet flexed in "Tracking the Earth." Alan Boeding's "Dreamcatcher" sculpture, a gyroscope-like construction and Momix trademark, allows a pair of dancers to traverse the stage in undulating arcs, their bodies embroidering the space as their weight, dropped or lifted, propels the looping sculpture into swooping scallops.
There's even a bit of literal pyrotechnics: Brian Sanders's "Fire Walker" sets his feet aflame in spectacular runs across the darkened space. Clad in flame-resistant socks, he jogs as fire licks his shins, alluding to the baking sun and sand.
"First Contact," the program's closer, imbues Pendleton's beloved desert landscape with the otherworldly, the spiritual. Michael Curry's fearsome two-story skeleton puppet oversees a trio of women in a dance of death. Harnessed by bungee cords, they dangle, then hurtle, their bodies levitating ghostly spirits.
"Opus Cactus," like the desert it pays homage to, translates its moments of splendor, of humor and of wonder onto Pendleton's 11 tough-as-nails dancer-athletes. Yet the evening too often flags -- the surprises and inventiveness verge on circus-like -- and the choreographic ebb and flow, over the 19 pieces, settles into a feeling of sameness. Unexpected discoveries in the vast desert landscape fade into the camouflage of endless, parched sand.