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This weekend, Momix is performing “Botanica” at George Mason’s Center for the Arts. The dance company is the brainchild of that irrepressible bete noir, Moses Pendleton, who helped found the groundbreaking contemporary company Pilobolus and started Momix in 1980. It’s the kind of group modern dance purists tend to turn up their noses at: Using bodies, lighting, and costumes in inventive ways, the performances are like acrobatic optical illusions; they don’t necessarily aim—according to critics, at least—to convey a deeper truth about life.

That’s the criticism. The upside is that his shows are arguably much more accessible to watchers than traditional modern dance. The audience doesn’t have to puzzle over what they just saw or wonder if they somehow missed an inside joke: It’s all right there.

Is there a significance, though, to the growing popularity of performances like this weekend’s? I’m talking about shows that highlight amazing physical spectacles but don’t aspire, as art traditionally does, to make some bigger statement. Aerial dance, for example, has exploded from nowhere over the past decade, and Cirque du Soleil’s popularity seems limitless; tickets for “Ovo,” currently running at National Harbor, go for upwards of $50.

And later this month, Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker, a Brazilian group, performs at the Kennedy Center; Deborah Colker is the creator and director behind Ovo and her company is correspondingly acrobatic. According to the New York Times, though, “Anyone who has seen Deborah Colker’s work…probably knows that you won’t leave the theater questioning the nature of existence.”

So what’s up with that? Circus arts have generally made a comeback over the past few years—Malcolm X Park on a sunny Sunday, with its crowds of jugglers, slackliners, and stiltwalkers, proves that—and perhaps these performances are simply reflecting a new trend.

But there might be a deeper rationale. Maybe, for whatever reason, mainstream audiences simply aren’t interested in trying to absorb someone else’s poetic take on the big picture; for now, maybe a show that simply makes them gasp in surprise and smile with delight is enough.

Photo by Don Perdue