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Fall Preview: Dance / Poetry in Moschen

Call him a juggler, call him a magician, call him -- as the MacArthur folks did -- a genius: Michael Moschen has a way with inanimate objects that makes you wanna dance.

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But is it dancing?

Call Michael Moschen a juggler, if you will, because he's a virtuoso of manipulating objects in patterns of his devising -- making them fly, spin, ricochet, float suspended, or appear, as if by magic, to be other than what they are. Moschen, who will appear at the Joyce Theater November 14 to 26, has taken juggling, that ancient craft of street entertainment and the circus, to the level of high art. If his solo concerts speak with particular eloquence to dance lovers, it's not just because his work is rooted in rhythm and balance but also because it springs from, and activates in its beholders, a sense of wonder -- wonder that begins with the physical and heads straight for the imaginary.

Guided by Moschen, "crystal" balls swim along his body without ever being grasped. Hollow cylinders swivel hypnotically over and under one another, then glide offstage, calmly self-possessed. Small, flung hard balls beat a fierce tattoo against the walls of a six-foot triangle. Barely visible in the dark shelter, Moschen directs the percussive event with hands and feet. But here, as everywhere in his show, "things" seem invested with lives of their own. Asked once by an audience member how he looked at the endless hours of concentrated labor behind these achievements, he replied, "I consider it time stolen from my own death."

"I'm not trying to dazzle the public with pyrotechnics," explains Moschen, whose artistry earned him, in 1990, a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. "I want to make an aesthetically beautiful piece, one that preserves the magical and mysterious unknown. I have a strong belief in the poetry of life."

He also has an uncanny instinct for physics. Ever since he taught himself to juggle at age 12 -- from a library book, with his older brother, and with his best friend, Penn Jillette, later the talking member of Penn & Teller -- Moschen, now 45, has been intensely focused, even obsessive about his work. "I could practice forever," he claims. Performance is just the tip of the iceberg; the rest is research. Fueled by his avid curiosity about the potential properties of objects in space and time, the germ of a manipulation, as Moschen calls his feats, grows slowly in his mind. He reads, he studies sculpture in museums, and, deft at construction, he builds models and observes them in action. His house, studio, and grounds, in idyllic Connecticut countryside, are strewn with objects, eerie in their beauty and workings, whose capacities he's exploring. "The process can go on for months," he says. "I'm in no hurry. I have to let a project reveal itself to me."

Just now he's working with closed cylinders -- the prototypes are giant coffee cans -- with something like dry rice sealed inside, so their shifts in position are heard as well as seen. At this early stage, Moschen works seated on a scruffy wing chair in his living room, eyeing himself and his equipment in a large square mirror that's propped against the wall. "When I begin something new," he explains, "I start in a small space, where I'm safe."

He jumps the gleaming cans vertically from one level to another, as if they were negotiating an invisible staircase. Next he combines this action with widening and narrowing the cylinders' sideways paths, then adds scooting them along diagonals. Sometimes his hand, open-palmed, contacts the silvery metal; sometimes it remains suspended just above it, as if casting a spell. All this occurs at a constantly changing pace. Not even the occasional glitch undermines the evidence that something astonishing is slowly and organically making its way toward the stage. Moschen won't say exactly what; he insists he doesn't yet know himself.

While Moschen's pieces are technically thrilling, each one has a metaphorical element that makes it haunting as well. Commenting on the suspension and gliding action of object upon object in his open-cylinders number, he says that "the image was the activity of thought folding in on itself."

What's more, a clear philosophical quality underlies the work. In conversation, Moschen keeps returning to the Zen experience of becoming one with the objects he handles, of disappearing into the activity. "To animate an object," he points out quite matter-of-factly, "you have to be willing to get rid of yourself."

On the other hand, he can be refreshingly down-to-earth, dismissing all the fancy interpretations of his trade with a casual "Oh, you know, I like throwing things around."


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