Moses Pendleton worries a lot about his dendrites. Makes sense, I suppose, considering this is the same man who created a contemporary dance company 26 years ago dedicated to wildly fantastic and bizarre “visual theater”—and then named it after a milk supplement fed to veal calves.
“Part of my job as the artistic director is training the brain,” says the founder of Momix in a recent telephone interview. “It’s another muscle you must exercise to be free and imaginative, otherwise your dendrites will rust.”
That’s right—dendrites. They are the branched endings of a nerve cell that conduct electrical signals from adjacent cells to the cell body. Pendleton, who grew up on a Vermont dairy farm before becoming a dancer and starting his own internationally acclaimed company, works on his dendrites daily. In fact, just before speaking with the Indy about his company’s upcoming performance in Hamilton, Pendleton was busy swimming in an icy lake, “putting some polish on my third eye.”
“We’re not alone out there,” explains Pendleton. “There’s all kinds of influence and, for me, there’s nature. The plant, animal, flower, mineral. In the case of a new piece I’m working on, I allow those things to come into my consciousness. Sometimes they go too far and there’s always, of course, that problem of not getting back to report my findings. That’s the difference between madness and an artist, I guess.”
All of this may make you think Pendleton has left a few too many cows out to pasture, but his deep New Age approach helps explain—at least a little—the surreal appeal of a Momix performance. With Momix, it’s as if a highly skilled ballet company decided to take up magic and busk along slicked-up street corners with equal parts trickery and physical skill. This is neither your mother’s favorite Balanchine ballet, nor something you’d ever see on “So You Think You Can Dance.” In fact, some argue Momix isn’t even dance at all.
“It’s physical, it’s a kind of dance—but it’s not just dance,” says Pendleton, who was also a founding member of Pilobolous Dance Theatre. “It’s a mix of physical theater and athletics. It doesn’t really tell a story, but its movements and pictures can be evocative.”
Take “Tuu.” The duet, which is part of the company’s touring “best of” performance, begins with a woman wrapped horizontally around a man’s midsection like grilled bacon hugging some delectable shrimp appetizer. She unfolds and extends, only keeping her legs clinched around his waste—imagine a sideways “T”—and, for the first two minutes of the piece, her feet never touch the ground. When the female dancer does break free, she stays freakishly rigid as the male dancer spins her like a bottle on the floor, she contorts as he lifts her back up again with nothing but his head and then, after a series of lavishly intertwined arm motions, she ends up wrapped back around him before holding him in a gentle embrace. It’s five minutes of unfeasibly difficult athleticism—and perhaps the most straightforward “dance” piece in the performance.
Many Momix works employ simple props or technical illusions. For instance, the company’s most recent evening-length work, Lunar Sea, liberally uses black lights with costumes that shadow parts of each dancer’s body. In the show’s climax, two giant spiders appear to be engaged in combat; in actuality, 10 dancers are lifting and propelling each other to create the image. Parts of Lunar Sea will appear in Hamilton.
“Much of the effort is felt and not seen,” says Pendleton. “Sometimes it looks so easy, but it’s not. Think about these odd creatures gliding and sliding and swimming through space—they’re being carried and supported in difficult ways that I don’t think many people realize. Sometimes, I think it would be good to just flash on the lights and let people see what exactly is going on.”
Dance purists and critics often wonder what to make of Pendleton’s abundant trickery. Claudia La Rocca brushed off the company’s 25th anniversary show in the New York Times stating, “For after you have taken in the central gimmick in these pieces, there is nothing to interest the mind or the eye.” That may be, but the critique ignores one key point—those gimmicks are usually pretty amazing.
“In general, a very important and integral part of art today is suspending reality,” says Pendleton, partly responding to La Rocca’s write-up. “That’s the world we live in. The world of dreams is a reality. Part of the essence of Momix is that you’re only as good as your ability to dream.”
To create that escapism, Pendleton maintains his connections to creative energy and keeps his dendrites fresh. Recently, he’s embarked on “wired” nature walks, in which he listens to an MP3 player and carries a voice recorder to “discharge descriptions or images that could be fleshed out choreographically.” How his initial ideas turn into fully realized productions is an entirely separate—and shared—process.
“When you go into a collaboration with dancers, the creative process—it’s sort of like sex in a way,” he says. “You have to have foreplay and you have to warm it up and you have to get excited and let everybody go a bit nuts. I’ll videotape all of these improvisations and go over them with the sobriety of next morning’s coffee. At that point it’s chemical in a way—you have feelings about certain elements that you want to hold onto and work with, and then you go back and create that energy again. If you didn’t cultivate this energy, then you’d have no way to enter the new.”
And so far, Pendleton’s had no problem finding ways to enter the new.
“There are no rules, really,” he says. “I never really know when I’m going to be attacked by an idea…If I can make something where people can
at least walk away and be in conversation about what it is that they might have seen, I feel we’ve been successful.”
Momix performs at the Hamilton Performing Arts Center Saturday, Oct. 11, at 8 PM. $28.50–$34.50. Call 363-7946.