When the Straight reaches legendary MOMIX artistic director Moses Pendleton, he is ensconced in his 22-room Victorian home in rural Connecticut, during an unusually late-season snow flurry.
“We have the candles lit and the fireplace is going, so it’s nice and cozy,” he relates over the phone.
This faded white mansion—with its atmospherically peeling wallpaper, its turret and bay windows, and, Pendleton says, its ghosts—is where MOMIX’s artfully imaginative works form. In an old barn nearby, Pendleton’s troupe of performers meets to create his unique meld of dance, acrobatics, and moving sculpture.
But where his creations first begin to take shape in his mind is out on the surrounding land, in the gigantic sunflower field, in the cabbage patch, or on the shores of his frost-encrusted lake. He constantly totes his camera out on the acreage to take pictures—when he isn’t touring his shows around the world.
“I click and clack throughout the day; I’m really not happy unless I do that. It’s a chance to be creative, and to be by myself and discover the mysteriousness of nature in my own back yard,” says Pendleton, who reveals he’s preparing for a large photography show in Italy, which has adopted MOMIX as one of its favourite acts since the 1980s. “You try to train the mind and body to be creative and curious. Where do you find energy? Einstein asked that. And for me, it’s the natural world, how the human relates to the nonhuman.
“A lot of times you go out and find ideas, some kind of vision or a theme in a chunk of rock or ice and see if you could reconstruct it and transform it into some kind of theatrical form,” the affable artist, who just turned 70, explains. “Living here, you get up and you can swim for an hour in the lake and have your coffee in the morning in the sun, and the ideas flow, like a trout’s dream.”
Nature has often been at the root of the gorgeous kinetic illusions he’s created on-stage for the last 38 years, which he’ll survey in the carefully fused program that is coming to Vancouver, Viva MOMIX. In his intricately crafted vignettes, dancers in layered orange tutus spin and raise the fabric to become marigolds; or their black-lit arms and shoulders become the flapping wings of snow geese.
Pendleton says that the dancers who come to his verdant outpost also channel inspiration from the nature there. “I invite the dancers to weed to find their soul in the soil,” he says with a laugh.
The dance veteran’s love of the outdoors came in part from growing up in the countryside, on a dairy farm in Vermont. An avid skier, he made his way to Dartmouth College for an English degree, but he also became hooked on dance, cofounding the groundbreaking, acrobatic Pilobolus Dance Theater in 1971. Pendleton formed his own company, MOMIX, in 1981 and has also staged work for films, ballets, operas, and special events around the globe, such as the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Based on high-calibre dance technique, his work melds lighting, sound, props, and costumes to create fantasies and ever-shifting trompe l’oeils.
“It’s right there in the company name: the word mix,” he says. “It’s not any one thing. It takes on an alchemical process, using bodies to create a sort of surreal, vaudeville-like show.”
Pendleton portrays his studio explorations as a kind of play school, where they bring in props or costume pieces to experiment. “I call it ‘poor theatre’: we go down to the hardware store and use some kind of PVC tubing,” he says. Though he’s not averse to new sound systems and cutting-edge lighting techniques, he conjures worlds that still hold a kind of human-scale, low-tech beauty. “You use technology to serve the poetry. You don’t want to get too lost in high tech.”
Some of Pendleton’s greatest visual feats are the least complicated: a woman eerily moving and fusing with her own reflection on the floor; dancers wearing a giant swath of paper, turning it into an undulating sculpture.
Throughout the diverse vignettes paraded out in Viva MOMIX—drawn from eight of the company’s shows—a sense of humour is also a common factor, channelled, as ever, from their upbeat creator. “It’s energetic and surprising and poetic, but that lightness of being is important,” Pendleton observes before getting back to the fire roaring in his Victorian hearth. “I’ve been influenced by Chaplin and Keaton and Laurel and Hardy as much as Balanchine. And if people do walk out with an extra lightness in their step, I’ll be happy.”
DanceHouse presents Viva MOMIX at the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday and Saturday (April 12 and 13).