Not Throwing Away Their Shot

The Straz Center education program readies local high school musical theater talents for the big time with the Broadway Star of the Future program. Winners get a chance to wow Broadway producers and directors in NYC for their shot at the title – and potentially launch their careers with a Jimmy® Award.

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The 2016 National High School Musical Theatre Awards. (Photo: Henry McGee)

We all know you get to Carnegie Hall with practice, practice, practice, but the joke omits the part about breaking into the business, which may be the most confounding part of wanting to be a working performer. Between a hefty mythologizing about the la-la land of show business and the often unknown paths leading to the Great White Way if you’re distanced from the Big Apple, musical theater students often feel overwhelmed by the size of their dream.

A long-time champion of the Florida State Thespians, a chapter of Education Theatre Association which supports excellence in theater education, The Straz established the Broadway Star of the Future award, a prize to two performers during the Thespians’ week-long annual festival at The Straz. These two winners, one female and one male, get a chaperoned, all-expense-paid trip to New York City to participate in the National High School Musical Theatre Awards presented by the Broadway League Foundation and created by legendary Broadway producer and theater owner James M. Nederlander.

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The Jimmys®, as they are affectionately known, is no mere red-carpet event. Oh, no. It’s a national competition, Broadway-style, which introduces aspiring musical theater performers to the demanding, week-in-the-life experience of a working actor. They have nine days to learn songs, choreography, medleys and cues for a two-hour, ticketed, live competition show at the Minksoff Theatre. They are ranked in secret by judges during rehearsal week solo performances, then the highest-ranking students are judged again during the full-cast medley sections of the Minskoff show. Scores are tallied, and four finalists are announced for a nail-biting final competition round, performing their solos once again to a packed Broadway house. One male and one female win a Jimmy, which includes a $10,000 check and guaranteed visibility with some of Broadway’s most respected vocal coaches, choreographers, directors and producers.

Realizing that the thespian pool did not reflect the talent in smaller or underserved schools, leadership at the Patel Conservatory decided to change things up a bit, separating the Broadway Star of the Future program from the Thespian Festival, which will still happen every spring at The Straz.

The exciting development this year involves our very own workshop-and-awards-show, a live, ticketed performance of the Broadway Star of the Future Awards Showcase in Ferguson Hall.

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Throughout the year, two to three credentialed, professional reviewers travel to local high schools in a four-county radius that applied to have their musicals and performers judged for several award categories. These reviewers nominate Outstanding Musical as well as Outstanding Actress and Actor, and these area schools and individuals collaborate in a one-day workshop to create the awards show for Broadway Star of the Future.

Then it’s places! Curtain! . . . and by the end of the show on June 4, we will know which two high school musical theater performers will be heading to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for rehearsals and their shot at the 2017 Jimmy Award in the Minskoff Theatre.

“Hosting this Broadway Star of the Future program widens the net of who we can celebrate,” says Vice President of Education Suzanne Livesay. “Any school with grades 9-12 can apply for review, which is so exciting for us. We get to see the bigger picture of who is out there and give them an opportunity to get to New York if that’s where they want to be.”

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2012 Broadway Star of the Future and Jimmy Award winner Joshua Grosso. On the left, Grosso performs at the National High School Musical Theatre Awards in New York.

Naturally, there are no guarantees, just opportunities – but the Straz Center’s 2012 Broadway Star of the Future, Joshua Grosso, won The Jimmy that year and was featured in the PBS documentary about the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, Broadway or Bust.

“We’re expecting this show to be a glitz and glamour affair,” Livesay says. “We have exceptional talent in this area, and they deserve a taste of the professional life that The Straz can give them from a live competition showcase in a fantastic theater. The winners will be prepared to go to New York, and we will have an incredible annual event to look forward to as a thriving, high school musical environment that makes real, professional inroads for our children.”

Bravo, Straz Education!

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Former Broadway Star of the Future winners, from top, left to right: Katrina Kiss & Adam Glickman (2010); Christian Thompson & Emily Hart (2011); Joshua Grosso & Samantha Schneider-Behen (2012); Tim Hart & Chandler Morehead (2013); Staci Stout & Nathanael Hicks (2014); Kylie Heyman & Kamari Saxon (2015); Blake Lafita & Francesca Iacovacci (2016).

Want to see the 2017 Broadway Star of the Future Awards Showcase? You can find the performance information here.

The Marchingest, Playingest Band in the Land

Florida A&M University’s Marching 100 and the invention of the black marching band style

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Historical photo from the Marching 100 Alumni Band Association.

In 1989, when the French government needed an act to represent American music for their 200th anniversary Bastille Day celebration marking French independence, did they choose Madonna? No. Michael Jackson? No. New Kids on the Block? Quintuple nope.

They chose Florida A&M University’s Marching 100—a university marching band.  Why?

Because there wasn’t anything, anywhere like The 100. Period. “They illustrated the essence of American music,” said the parade’s artistic director, Jean-Paul Goude, in a 1989 interview with The New York Times. And, at the parade, FAMU’s Marching 100 did not disappoint. Instead of a bright, healthy dose of traditional marching band fare, the Marching 100 delivered a non-stop set of James Brown, complete with high-stepping, complicated choreography and the old-school hip-swiveling swagger of the Rattlers’ signature marching style. The Parisians went bonkers.

In this YouTube video capturing the 1989 Good Morning America report on the event, you can see the representative Marching 100 rehearsing, touring the Louvre and even trying to teach their Parisian hosts to moonwalk. The end of the video shows a dress rehearsal of their performance.

The Miami Herald dubbed the Marching 100 “the marchingest, playingest band in the land.” CNN flat out announced them as “the best band in the entire universe.” And while there are scores of superb, unforgettable, unstoppable black marching bands from the rich heritage of American Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), we want to shine a light on the Marching 100 in honor of the upcoming performance of DRUMLine Live, which celebrates the black marching band style we all know and love today—which happened to be invented right here in Florida thanks to FAMU’s legendary band director, Dr. William P. Foster.

I.    Dr. William P. Foster and a (Very Brief, Grossly Oversimplified) History* of the Black Marching Band

Of course, the story traces back to war, slavery and the pervasive fearful attitudes white folks had about black and brown people. By now, we know this theme well, especially as an audience of the performing arts in America, where the record shows that the influence and creative contributions of black people is a real American tale of victory in the face of adverse and often deadly circumstances.

So, the marching band story begins somewhere around 1738, when the Virginia legislature conscripted free people of color for the military; however, whites were scared of an uprising, so PoCs couldn’t have guns. What they could have, though, were instruments. They made a perfect drum and fife corps.

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1st Army Post Band in Souilly, France, 1918. (Photo from BBC’s Music in the Great War: Military Bands)

Trained in the military bands during the War of 1812, black musicians formed several all-black brass bands in some of the same cities that would birth American music: New Orleans, Philly, New York. These post-war military bands evolved to play social functions, too, and entered mainstream life as cotillion bands. As time and wars wore on, the status of the military band elevated, and ex-military band members served their communities in auxiliary bands that played at public events, for volunteer fire departments, at lodges and for holidays.

Brass bands took off like wildfire across the country, and arguably the most fertile ground for black musicians was New Orleans. Under African American leadership, the city formed benevolent societies in the 1880s whose many social events needed music and stellar musicianship. While the black brass band musical identity was taking shape, its rural counterpart, self-taught musicians heavily influenced by spirituals, jubilees and the human voice, began establishing itself throughout the South. These musicians’ “singing horns” mimicked the up-and-down field calls, growling and sliding of the human voice, and their style met the New Orleans style during the musician exodus northward in the early 20th century.

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Band leader Lt. James Reese Europe with the 369th Infantry Regiment aka the Harlem Hellfighters, 1919.

By the time WWI rolled around, the Harlem Hellfighters military band was arguably the best in the world, as it encapsulated what had been happening musically in the black community since the foundling drum and fife corps days.

Take this history and add the fact that, in an effort to create equitable post-Civil-War educational opportunities, the 1890 Land Grant Act helped start 17 black land-grant colleges in the South (and some border states) focusing on agricultural, mechanical and industrial education.

Hence, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. Florida A&M University, or, FAMU. Bands played a small role on the campuses although the colleges boasted superior music programs. In time, veterans of the wars and those men who performed in marching bands like the Harlem Hellfighters found themselves in band director positions on the campuses of Tuskeegee University and Alabama A&M.

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Dr. William P. Foster, creator of the world famous FAMU Marching 100 band. (Photo: Victor R. Gaines)

In 1946, FAMU specifically wanted to put itself on the map. To do so, they would need a fine band. Better than Tuskeegee’s. They hired Dr. William P. Foster, a man renowned for his high ethical standards in life and in musicianship, and he took on the struggling FAMU band program. Although the university only had 16 band members and 17 mostly broken instruments, Dr. Foster pulled together a 45-piece marching band for the start of the fall 1946 term. It was the first of fifty-two years that Dr. Foster would serve as FAMU’s director of bands. 1946 marked the start of his “philosophy of life” approach, demanding excellence in musicianship, service, academics and personal achievement.

But 1947. That’s when the magic happened.

II.    Pageantry and Showmanship

In case you don’t know, HBCU football games are about the band. The half-time show is where it’s at and where you’ll see the high-stepping, cymbal-bowing, whistle-tooting razz-ma-tazz artistry of all that is the one-upping showmanship of the black marching band extravaganza.

It started with Dr. Foster’s simple decision to break from the traditional marching mold. In 1947, his second year as FAMU’s director of bands, he had them execute some dance steps to “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” during the half-time show. Nobody had seen a marching band do such a thing. People went nuts; they loved it; the band loved it. Dr. Foster knew he was on to something big, something good. He started innovating, mixing drills, dance, precision and developing signature marching styles (everyone knows FAMU’s “death cadence” or “slow one sequence” that accelerates to 320 steps per minute).

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Historical photos from the Marching 100 Alumni Band Association.

Once Dr. Foster and the FAMU band, coined the Marching 100 though they now exceed 400 members, broke the mold, there was no going back. Other HBCU marching bands took their cues, borrowing here and there from FAMU but eventually finding their own styles and signature moves, which added a different dimension to inter-collegiate competition. Touchdowns were one thing, but half-time shows—which Foster called “pageants” and the name stuck—were the real action on the field.

“The Marching 100 was, and still is, the identity of Florida A&M University,” says Straz Center Chief of Security Dan Mathis, who is a proud FAMU alum. “When people mentioned FAMU, the conversation was always about the band. The games were about the band. When the Florida Classic was still played here in Tampa Stadium, I dreamed as a kid about running out of the tunnel as a football player while the band played. Everyone looked forward to the half-time show. The half-time shows were epic against our in-state rival Bethune-Cookman University–the formations, the dance routines, the tuba section, and the dynamic drum majors.”

His favorite part? “The tubas!,” he laughs.

Dan says watch this video if you want to see some action from the Marching 100 tuba section:

The Straz Center’s marketing manager for the Patel Conservatory education programs, Stephanie Pemberton, was a drum major at Blake High School. Their band director, a FAMU grad and member of the Marching 100, gave her the legendary training that put FAMU on the map. “He originated Blake High School’s Marching Yellow Jackets to model after the Marching 100,” she says. “We did 90-degree high-step entrances and exits from the stadium as well as extensive dance numbers involving all musicians in the band. At this point of my musical career, I had already been playing for 10+ years—but this was a whole new experience in the world of entertaining. Our football team was lousy, but people came to the games to dance in the stands. It was so much fun. Even now, as a 36-year-old woman, I can still hold the ‘flamingo stand’ he made us do. And do. And do.”

III.    FAMU: Getting Personal in the Historical Context

Geri Kelly, who works as the community programs coordinator at the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory, graduated from FAMU in 1968. “I can remember watching the band on the field at A&M when I was a child,” she says. “The pride and the excitement that the band generates is what convinced me to attend Florida A&M.  Although the academic program in theater was one of the strongest in Historically Black Colleges, I felt a sense of pride just to say I attended FAMU, the home of the Marching 100.  I can remember throughout my adult life, making the effort to be before the TV to see them perform at three Super Bowls, in parades for Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and on 20/20 as the main guest.”

For Geri, like most HBCU students and alums, the point of the pageant, of the band, goes deeper than the showmanship or the celebrity. “It is about the culture and the history in music that they keep that sense of pride alive in most blacks, whether they attended FAMU or not.  My entire family have a strong sense of pride in the Marching 100, and most did not attend the school.  It is more than that . . . it’s a way of life. It’s our heritage” says Geri.

Black marching band dance, drum, music and precision execution combined with its reimagining of what a marching band could, should and would do grew into an aspect of black culture and identity that is a singular expression of African American sensibilities. Marching bands represent a cultural legacy and are symbols of an indomitable spirit of victory, handed down through the generations since the start of the HBCUs at the end of the Civil War. The evolution of the black marching band is an important thread of the story of blackness in America that is, viewed with a wide-angle lens, an important story in understanding America, too.

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Historical photos from the Marching 100 Alumni Band Association.

Just a reminder that DRUMLine Live will be more fun with friends. Groups of 10 or more get a special discount, so if you’ve got lots of folks who want to go, call our Group Sales Office and get hooked up. 813.222.1016 or 813.222.1047 or email groups@strazcenter.org.

*historical information found in Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum: Performance Traditions of Historically Black College and University Marching Bands, a UNC-Chapel Hill master’s thesis in folklore by William Dukes Lewis.

Causing All This Conversation

Tosca slays, creating some great legends

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Early critics sometimes panned Puccini’s Tosca, tossing it on a slagheap of criticism that included dismissing it as a “shabby little shocker” that was, in a word, vulgar.

But what are you going to do? Haters gonna hate.

Audiences love this opera, and it contains three meaty main roles for singers to sink their teeth into. Tosca’s seat at the table of perennial favorites, opera’s Big Ones, seem guaranteed. And that, in a word, means Tosca slays, which is to say the opera triumphs over haters – not to be confused with Tosca slays, which we know she does. So sorry, Scarpia.

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The title page of the Tosca piano score, published by G. Ricordi, 1899.

Like any great diva, this opera created legends. Some circle on the rims of opera history, others are well known. Here are some favorite anecdotes to emerge from the Tosca book of tales:

1. Legend of the Fall – an impish stagehand replaces the mattress needed to catch the actress playing Tosca for the finale with a trampoline, causing the singer to rebound into view after diving from the parapet.

2. The Lemming Effect – extras in the firing squad at the finale failed to be at final rehearsals, so the director instructed them to “follow the principal” offstage, meaning Spoletta. However, they thought Tosca was the principal, leaping from the parapet after her. No stories of this tale combined with the trampoline have been found, sadly.

3. Sometimes You Have to Bring a Fan to a Knife Fight – in the nail-biting poetic justice scene, the singer performing Tosca realized there’s no knife onstage and, making do, stabs Scarpia to death with her fan.

4. Lock, Stock and Once Smoking Barrel – poor Cavaradossi (well, the poor tenor playing Cavaradossi) experienced a really unfortunate occupational hazard when and improperly prepared stage rifle during the firing squad scene drew some real blood. This is not what we meant when we said Tosca slays.

See Opera Tampa’s production of Tosca on April 7 and 9. Get more info and tickets here.

The Courage to Challenge the Story

An intimate chat with National Geographic photojournalist Ami Vitale

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Ami taking a nap with Ringo, an orphaned southern white rhino at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. (Photo: Corey Rich Productions, from Ami’s Instagram)

Photojournalist Ami Vitale, who appears at The Straz March 28 for the final talk in our National Geographic LIVE! season, had a revelation standing in the middle of the Second Intifada. She’ll tell you all about it—and how it led to her quiet revolution in storytelling. Vitale’s images challenge people to start pondering the whole picture outside of the snapshots from the terror-scape of how we talk about world events. Vitale means to make us see what we share as humans connected to an entire planet, a rather radical move in the age of bubble bias and other troubling trends in the information age.

In her talk here, Ami will take the audience on a breathtaking, heartwarming and ultimately thought-provoking journey traversing her years as a war correspondent, her immersion studies in Guinea Bissau and Kashmir and eventually to her coolest-job-ever assignment of documenting pandas (and so many baby pandas) in China’s rescue and re-wilding program. You will see Ami in a panda suit and learn many interesting things through the stories she tells in her photographs.

Last week, we caught up with Ami by phone from her Montana home, where she was recovering from jetlag after a two-day delay in returning from her latest assignment in Kenya. We learned more about her, and share our conversation with you in this exclusive interview.

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Baby panda at Chengu Panda Base in China. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: You graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill around 1993 with a degree in International Studies. Was that because you already had a global plan for yourself and photography was a part of that?

Ami Vitale: Photography was not something I dreamed of. I just didn’t think that kind of life was possible for someone like me. But once I started to latch onto the idea of photography, I saw it as my passport to the world.

CITA: But you had an internship with the Smithsonian print room at 16 years old, which is really cool. You didn’t know you were going to be a photographer then?

AV: Yeah, my job was to print pictures from the Smithsonian archives. You know how you can order prints from them, so I was down in the archives making prints for all the people who ordered them. I was among all of these historical images, and I think it was at that time that I realized the power of photography. When I was 16, I understood the power of photography, but I didn’t understand it could be a career path for someone like me.

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At Standing Rock in North Dakota. (Photos from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: We love that twice you’ve said that the life you have now wasn’t for “someone like me.” What does that mean? What were you like?

AV: I was introverted, gawky. I was intimidated by a lot of things. I was just afraid. I wasn’t the kind of person who had big dreams for myself, or any dreams at all. So, I didn’t have that dream [of being a travel photographer] in my mind. I just didn’t have that kind of confidence. I see these young girls today, they’re so confident, they want to go out and conquer the world . . . [laughs] I wasn’t like that.

CITA: But something changed. Do you remember a specific point when you got a camera or took a particular photo and suddenly you became Ami Vitale?

AV: You know, the second I had a camera in my hand—and I still get emotional when I think about it—a camera empowered me. It gave me a reason to be somewhere, to be with people, to have a purpose and a story to tell. I didn’t understand, really, how important this medium is in that way, that a shy, introverted person could become an empowered person who could say important things. But, as time went on, the more important lesson was that these images could be empowering to people I was photographing. Their stories are very valuable.

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Ramla Sharif roasting coffee in her home in Ethiopia. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA:  What strikes us about you when reading other interviews or watching your TED or Nat Geo talks is that you don’t have a stage persona. You seem to come out on the stage as yourself, still as someone who is also amazed that you get to work you do and share stories about what you discover and photograph. You’re so relatable as a regular kind of person.

AV [laughs]: There’s still the little girl in me who can’t believe all of this life is possible. [laughs] Thinking, ‘I’m not worthy’ and being in amazement about it. But, the mission took over. It’s not about me. I’m driven by something else bigger than me. That’s what photography did for me—it’s a vehicle to take me places among people to show how connected we are, that we have so much in common, that there’s more to the story than what we typically see.

CITA: Your point of view about our similarities, about our shared values and shared planet is so important right now. You seem to have a necessary voice pointing out that humanity is part of a bigger picture of a common place.

AV: I definitely think we all play some small role in a bigger story of being connected. Every single person’s voice is valuable and important. Part of what happened to me was learning to believe in the importance of my own voice. Everyone has to listen to their own voice, trust it, and use it—now more than ever.

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Photos from Ami’s Instagram.

CITA: Something else striking, especially scrolling through your Instagram account, is the ongoing archetypes of girlhood you present, a version of girlhood that is for women who are smart, love animals, expected adventure in life, and held a sort of ride-or-die vision of friendship and family. The pictures of the horses’ manes from the Montana photos drove home this notion, for us at least, that here was a photographer who captured what adult life looks like for those girlhood archetypes. Do you think about that when you’re photographing or is that just something we read into your images as the viewer?

AV: I had not and haven’t ever thought about the images in that way, that’s so interesting. I’ll have to do some soul searching on that question about girlhood archetypes. But, I can tell you what I am aware of. I am aware of my feminine point of view. Most of my career, I was trying to do what my male colleagues were doing, but I got old enough to understand that what I have, my feminine point of view, is especially important. People will say to me, “you’re too Pollyanna for the world,” but I say no. I’m not. I just see it differently, and I have an important point of view. I’m latching on to my inner voice that says ‘you can be strong and have an optimistic view of the world.’

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Monks practicing a mask dance for the annual festival in Eastern Bhutan. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: Most of us are trained to believe that news has to be bad or drastic or war-torn to be taken seriously, this more masculine worldview of war, fear and dominance themes as the “real” story, all else is fluff or not serious. We get stuck in narrative ruts and don’t question what more is there to the story, or is this an accurate depiction. By default, that view is often the unquestioned version of events, so we see the same types of images “from the field.” We’re glad you don’t take that route.

AV: Even today, I have to fight to get my stories, which are just as valid and necessary, published. I’m someone who looks for solutions, not just documenting the problems. But, solutions are hard to get published. Why? Why aren’t we telling the whole story instead of half truths? I see in wholes. We are so used to these kinds of horror-narratives that we’re brainwashed to think the same way. It’s wonderful to have a platform [like National Geographic LIVE!] to be able to tell another story, to find a way forward. We have to keep moving forward.

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This giraffe checks out Ami’s camera in Northern Kenya. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: It’s hard to have the courage to say hey, there’s a different way to look at what’s going on. What is it that compels you to tales of the human heart?

AV: Well . . . what’s the point of living otherwise? When I come home from a trip, I don’t even want to turn on the news, there’s so much fear everywhere. I mean, there is fear every place I look. Continuing to spread fear doesn’t make a better world. When I’m out there, in the world, I don’t see things the way they appear in television coverage of the same event. I’m in the war zones. I’m there. And I see a much wider view of what humanity looks like, of life unfolding. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re creating the things we’re afraid of. I see so much beauty in humanity everywhere, and why are we not shining a light on that? I want those stories told. About how connected we are. Look anywhere and you’ll see it. But, right now, we’re being hijacked by extreme ideas.

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A child on his way home from school in Sri Lanka. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: You do seem to be a much needed voice.

AV: Well, the truth is, ultimately I want to give people the ability to dream, to find a path, to make a difference. I want people to know that you don’t have to travel the world, you can do that in your own backyard. I didn’t have the ability to dream when I was younger, so I want to give that to others.

CITA: Part of helping others dream is teaching and workshops. You have an upcoming photography workshop to Prague with high school students through a program with Nat Geo. What’s that all about?

AV: Teaching is a way to pass the torch, so I do quite a bit of speaking and teaching. This workshop is a little bit of what it’s like to be a travel correspondent, how do you tell stories, how do you listen to people. It’s teaching them that the life isn’t about snapping pretty pictures, it’s more than that. It should be about 18-20 students, so very intimate because I do like to get to know everyone individually and help them in their work.

CITA: We can’t wait to see you in a few weeks.

AV:  Thanks so much. I’m really looking forward to it.

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An elephant at Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

Come see Ami on March 28 at 7pm in Ferguson Hall. Follow her on Instagram @amivitale and on Facebook.

Have favorite Ami photos? Let us know in the comments below.

Soul Soil: A-List Choreographer Moses Pendleton and the Alchemy of Turning Human Bodies into Saguaro Cacti and Other Odd Things

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MOMIX Opus Cactus. (Photo: Charles Azzopardi)

When Moses Pendleton, the superstar co-founder of Pilobolus and dance maker extraordinaire, was a wee lad, one of his jobs on the family dairy farm was to feed the veal calves a nutritious milk supplement. The name of the supplement?

Momix.

Pendleton returned to this physical memory later when he choreographed a solo for the 1980 Moscow Olympics called “Momix,” the “mo” reportedly doubling as a reference to Pendleton himself, the “mix” alluding to the grab-bag of theatrical delights Pendleton throws into his dance-making stew. To call what Pendleton does “dance” is misleading, especially for someone who may associate the word with classical, recognizable forms like ballet, jazz or even contemporary or hip-hop.

It’s more like movement theatrics.

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MOMIX Opus Cactus comes to The Straz on March 23. (Photo: Charles Azzopardi)

As a co-founder of Pilobolus, his first movement endeavor with fellow Dartmouth dance student Jonathan Wolken and others, Pendleton and crew pulled another name from a family source. Wolken’s dad was studying a certain light-loving fungus called Pilobolus crystallinus, and the name, Pilobolus [pe-LOB-ah-lus], stuck. The women and men of Pilobolus were way more into upending expectations than presenting pretty works to show off technique (hey, this was the ‘70s, after all, so being far out was, well    . . . far out! . . . and most of them didn’t have any dance training, anyway).  What they created was a mad-cap theatrical spectacle that relied as much on brute strength and derring-do as it did on anyone’s ability to extend through the line.

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An early performance of “Pilobolus.” This is the seminal work from which the company evolved. (Photo: Tim Matson)

By the end of the ‘70s, Pendleton’s creative drive led him to form a new company, a sort of off-shoot of the Pilobolus idea but with more intentional stagecraft like lighting tricks, props, and soundscaping. The name he chose conformed to the earth-family ties of Pilobolus nomenclature. The name that stuck?

MOMIX.

Pendleton, whose rural, agricultural upbringing defined his world view, eventually bought a Connecticut compound complete with a rambling 22-room main farmhouse and a converted horse barn for the MOMIX movement lab. He meant to explore the human form in non-human worlds, blending his study of animals, plants and minerals into works of gorgeous, simple explorations of themes: seasons (Botanica), the moon (Lunar Sea), the four elements (Alchemia).

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MOMIX Lunar Sea. (Photos: Max Pucciariello)

Even now as a man in his late-60s, he follows the same routine that he has for decades: get up, swim, build fire, go on walk, work. These walks, from three to four hours in the woods around his home, include copious photographs, many of which inspire later choreography. His photos, which are quite stunning, have been on exhibit in the United States and Europe and serve, as one gallery curator noted, as tangible documentation of where his dances come from. Sunflowers, decaying foliage, trees, lichen, rock formations—these images compel Pendleton and his MOMIX dancers to work tirelessly in the horse barn animating the non-human world through the human body, “the greatest toy we have,” Pendleton says.

To connect his dancers’ souls to the soil, Pendleton invites them to his land, giving them good old fashioned chores like weeding, tending the sunflower fields and planting marigolds to build their personal connection to the living things they will embody. He demands his dancers possess acting and mimetic skills equal to their dancing ability because the work of MOMIX often requires dancers to become something other than human—especially in his work coming here March 23, a reboot of his 2001 ingenious depiction of the southwestern desert mystique, Opus Cactus.

Opus Cactus, perhaps one of Pendleton’s most critically-acclaimed works (and definitely an audience favorite), captures the desert garden world of the southwest. With the help of entrancing world music and a lighting palette worthy of Georgia O’Keefe, the dancers morph in and out of various splendors found in the sun and sand—including the sun and the sand. Cacti tableaux abound as Pendleton’s crop of muscular dancer-gymnast-illusionists take the forms of the iconic saguaro and the pretty, lobular prickly pear.

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MOMIX Opus Cactus. (Photo: Charles Azzopardi)

The trick to really enjoying MOMIX is to not think about it too much. Even MOMIX will tell you that most of the time it doesn’t “mean” anything. An evening with MOMIX is meant to bring satisfaction to the audience, in whatever ways works, whether it’s the deft use of props and costumes or the sensual architecture of human bodies morphing into fighting Gila monsters or mimicking the suspended-in-air radiation of desert heat.

As Pendleton said in an interview, “we are nurtured by nature. It’s a muse, an inspiration. Which jumps right into the aesthetic of MOMIX. There’s a level of the surreal and dream, and making the connection with plant, animal and mineral.”

Fun MOMIX note: maybe you’re getting a certain familiar feeling looking at the MOMIX pix? Well, you may remember the company from a few commercials, like this one from Hanes:

Or Target: