Luminous white figures stand on a dim stage. They jump into patterns, swaying. Then they arch their backs, kick up their feet, and swim off through the darkness. It's an illusion: those body-tights are half-white, half-black. With one white leg off the ground, the dancer seems to float. Even when you've worked it out, the image stays in the mind.
This is the UK premiere of Lunar Sea, by the American dance theatre company Momix. Moses Pendleton, its director and founder, exploits all kinds of skills; dancing is mixed with gymnastics, puppetry and trapeze, lit with black and UV light. Glowing film projections show kaleidoscope pictures of flowers, of full and crescent moons.
Illusionist theatre can become twee. Lunar Sea slides that way - the scene with the baby moon spider, the awful pun in the title. And Pendleton can be hypnotised by his patterns, making too many variations on the same theme. But other scenes have a dreamy sense of surprise, with bodies drifting against gravity.
The appeal is greatest at just the point where you can't quite see how it's done. Pendleton uses puppets by Michael Curry, who worked on The Lion King, plus fans, umbrellas and other props. But it's when you can half-see human limbs that the illusions take off, giving you the charm of an image plus the tease of something you can't quite recognise.
The show is divided in two. Black and white figures dominate the first half, faces and bodies disguised by costume and lighting. In the second, they take their masks off for grappling duets, or vanish altogether as they work the puppets.
The monochrome ballets yield the strongest scenes. And Pendleton has ballet in mind; when the white figures are carried or flown on wires across the stage, they recall the ghostly figures from Giselle. The tricks of 19th-century stagecraft are heightened by modern lighting. Lunar Sea uses music as background, providing a wash of sound, a mood, rather than structure or rhythm. The illusions, though exactly timed, don't have a musical pulse.
The Momix dancers are exemplary. Those illusions must involve jumps, lifts, long-held balances and changes of direction. The dancers move with easy precision, saving their individuality for some dashing curtain-calls.
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