ARCHIVE: Living in the Momix

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“Avant gardener” and MOMIX founder Moses Pendleton is shown in a good light.

By DIANA MOORE (First published on Red Bank oRBit February 25, 2009)

He’s been called a “master of illusionist theatre,” an innovator who “choreographs dance sculptures that bring together acrobatics, gymnastics, mime, props, and film.”

Ask Moses Pendleton, and he’ll just as soon refer to himself as an “avant gardener;” a cultivator of ideas who translates the symmetries and syncopations of the natural world into the language of human movement. As founder and artistic director ofMomix Dance Theater, the 59-year old Pendleton has been something of a force of nature himself — choreographing ballets for the leading companies of Europe and North America, while working on music videos for the likes of Prince and Julian Lennon. He designed the 3D IMAX film Imagine; created a memorable closing ceremony for the Lake Placid Winter Olympics; appeared on Sesame Street; raised sunflowers on his farm. And back in 1971, he turned the world of dance on its ear when he co-founded the revolutionary Pilobolus company.

Not bad for someone who was born and raised far from big city stages on a dairy farm in Vermont, where his first public performance experience was the showing of prize Holstein Friesians at the county fairs. While not every farm boy becomes a cutting-edge choreographer of international repute (or for that matter a cross-country ski champion), not every choreographer stays so attuned to the natural world, allowing it to inform every aspect of his work.

In a performance by Momix, human bodies become insects, reptiles, seahorses. Flowers bloom, moonlight dances on water, a skier stands en pointe, on skies. The illusion is realized through costumes, props and lighting, but most of all through the kinetic skills of a breathtakingly talented ensemble, and the never-flagging sense of wonder exhibited by their guiding force.

This Friday night at 8pm, the Count Basie Theatre hosts Momix Remix, a “best-of” program showcasing some of the most vivid sequences from the company’s five full-length presentations. Red Bank oRBit spoke to Moses Pendleton in advance of the show, to find out more about this thing called Momix.

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Four dancers equal one creepy creature in OPUS CACTUS, one of the works excerpted in the MOMIX REMIX program that appears in Red Bank on Friday night.

RED BANK ORBIT: What exactly can we expect to see at the Count Basie with MOMIX REMIX? Is it a greatest-hits retrospective, or does it incorporate some new material?

MOSES PENDLETON: You can expect the unexpected, since we have six different shows worth of material. It’s highlights from our five different full-evening works — fast moving, short pieces, a nice cross section with a lot of variety. I quite recommend it!

You’ve said that you’re most interested in exploring the links between animal, plant and mineral…

The natural world has always been an influence on me, and my work reflects that. It may seem that Momix is out of this world, because while much of what we do comes from the earth, there are things lunar and beyond — things further out. But we all really come from the sun.

What are some of the segments in the REMIX program that draw from that natural imagery?

One of our shows is entitled Opus Cactus, an homage to the Sonoran desert. We do something called “Gila Dance,” in which four men combine to create the image of a Gila Monster, and a snake. It takes the ability to manipulate the body, manipulate weight to create shape. It’s coordinated every bit as much as an old Busby Berkeleymovie number — you actually see a snake dance.

And Dreamcatcher is a pas de deux done with kinetic sculpture. We try to be evocative in works like these; working through optical confusion — the brain trying to make the dream real. We’ll use props, extend the ways of the body, create new forms.

Your performers go beyond the role of dancers, they seem to inhabit completely different bodies…

Each piece has certain requirements — you’ve got to make your arms move so that they’re wings rather than arms. As humans, we like to imitate nature. It’s part of our code — what is it to be human, other than to make contact with things beyond ourselves?

I’ve seen some footage of your performances on YouTube…

Oh my god, YouTube. I just got back from Italy, and as soon as the show starts I see 45 cell phones go up in the air, recording. They’re like fireflies; there’s no way you’re going to get them all to stop. It’s one thing to use a phone to record a performance, but the next day everyone has posted last night’s show for all to see. I suppose I wouldn’t mind it so much if they weren’t so poorly filmed.

You sort of already answered one of my questions…

I’m reading your mind. I’m solar powered!

How long would you say it takes to create a new full-length piece, from initial concept to the finished work on stage?

It never gets finished. I’ve worked three years on Botanica, our newest piece — it took three years to premiere, and it will take another two years to ‘fix.’ So it’s always a work in progress; a state of continuous research. You never get tired of it.

You’re so passionate about what you do; it’s hard to believe that you got into dance purely by accident.

Purely by a skiing accident, as you’ve probably read. Living in Vermont, I was always a serious skier; I skied Mt. Hood with an Austrian ski team. But in life we can’t predict the future — only react to the moment. All of us improvise our way through time, space, and life — the thing is to capitalize on our mistakes.

There’s something alchemical about it, to spin leaden misfortune into a golden idea. President Obama would agree that if you don’t have the will to deal with a problem, it will never get solved. In depressing times like these, we need to combat that; we need to look beyond our own personal depression.

What are some of the ways in which you deal with stress, and the things that life throws your way?

I like to go out and take a long hike in the cold — go out into the wind chill and let a little of God’s breath put a polish on the old third eye! It comes from my Nordic background; that tough sort of life.

I’m known as The Swimmer in the summer. I’m out there doing laps around the local lake — someday I might break the record, which is forty-five minutes to swim around the whole lake. I don’t dance for the public anymore, but I’ll perform for the fish.

You set quite an example for all the creatures of the earth.

This is the baby boomer refusing to let go! I’ve been very fortunate, to be able to play the way that I do. And if people appreciate what I do; if they go out from one of our performances with a little less gravity in their skip, then I’ve been successful.

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