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: