Dancing About Cactus

The natural world is part of the MOMIX mix

Moses Pendleton, renowned MOMIX founder and choreographer, lives and works in a bucolic corner of northwest Connecticut.

"We're in the woods," he says by phone. "There's snow on the ground. I can see the sun setting as we speak."

When the dancers come up from New York for a week of rehearsal, they all get a chance to get back to nature. They live in a renovated barn. They dance in a studio with no running water. And the animals, lakes, trees and garden—including Pendleton's renowned sunflowers—all make their way into the troupe's playful dances.

"The natural world is an inspiration to me," says Pendleton, who choreographs nearly all of the company's works. "It's part of the MOMIX aesthetic."

Now celebrating its 30th anniversary season, the troupe of "dancer-illusionists" will perform a greatest-hits concert at Centennial Hall on Saturday night.

"It's our compilation album," Pendleton jokingly says. Eight dancers will perform a dozen short dances, all of them drawn from larger evening-length works that Pendleton created over the last three decades. With such titles as "Moon Beams" and "Aqua Flor," a good many of them are preoccupied with nature.

The Canada geese Pendleton sees flying over his New England property turn up in "Geese," an excerpt from Lunar Sea. Ten arms, belonging to five dancers, mimic the movement of the birds' wings. "Millennium Skiva" has two dancers in silver darting about like poured mercury, and "Medusas" conveys a "feeling of being underwater."

"Aqua Flor" is a fragment of Botanica, Pendleton's brand-new evening-length work. As its name suggests, the dance is an homage to plants. (Another division of the company is touring the full work in Europe.) Tucsonans will see a "beautiful solo" danced by Nicole Lozides.

"She wears a large headdress of beads. The image is of dew sparkling on cobwebs."

Even the desert gets into the act. Twice Pendleton has been commissioned to create works in Arizona and he has learned to love its prickly landscape when he was working here.

"I walked for hours in Saguaro National Park," he remembers, drinking in the surrealistic forms of desert life.

His Opus Cactus, commissioned by Ballet Arizona, is a full-length piece that has the dancers mimicking the plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert. The last time the troupe alighted in Tucson, the dancers performed the entire work. A trio in green metamorphosed themselves into saguaros; other dancers scrambled across the stage as hot-country bugs and lizards.

Two fragments of Opus Cactus make it into this show. "Dream Catcher," a duet for Heather Magee and Samuel Beckman, has a "beautiful ending," Pendleton says. "A wheel rolls over them and catches their dreams." Three men dance "Pole Dance," each interacting with a 10-foot pole.

The other Arizona work, "Baseball," got its start as "Bat Habits," a short dance commissioned by the Scottsdale Center for the Arts to celebrate the opening of a new stadium. At Centennial Hall, Lozides will perform "The Wind Up," a solo extracted from the longer work. As a pitcher preparing to throw the ball, she becomes a "whirling dervish virtuoso."

The 12 pieces show off the MOMIX dancers' renowned athletic abilities, not to mention their skill at pretzeling their bodies into strange and entertaining shapes. MOMIX is sometimes criticized by dance purists for being too accessible, even show-bizzy, and in fact the troupe occasionally goes all-out commercial by working in advertising.

Last Sunday night, the MOMIX troupers performed in a commercial that aired during the Golden Globes Award ceremony, and an upcoming commercial gig will take them to a gala in Athens, Pendleton says.

But he makes no apologies for a style that's sometimes more artful gymnastics than dance. He started out as an athlete, a competitive skier who raced internationally and skied for Dartmouth College. When he broke his leg in a skiing accident, he retreated to a college dance class to rehab.

"I took dance classes to get back in shape," he says, and discovered he liked dance. "It was putting aesthetics on athletics."

In 1971 Pendleton joined with several other young men in the Dartmouth dance classes taught by Alison Chase to co-found Pilobolus.

Pendleton left Pilobolus in 1980 to form his own company, but some of his early works are still in the Pilobolus repertory. Both troupes are based in the country town of Washington, Connecticut.

"We remain friends," he says, but the former partners nowadays collaborate only "over dinner."

Pilobolus pioneered imaginative partnering and the illusionistic transformation of human bodies into everything from pinwheels to daisy petals. And both companies keep up that tradition, putting dancers into beautiful sculptural formations, and using inventive costumes and props.

"Expect the unexpected from MOMIX," Pendleton advises.

That formula has kept the troupe aloft in good times and bad.

"During depressed times, MOMIX is an antidote to depression," Pendleton says. "Our business has never been better. People are having a hard time with the economy. MOMIX is a nice escape. It entertains and uplifts."


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