POSTED ON APRIL 3, 2013:
Avant-garden comes to town
Ask Moses Pendleton just exactly what he's got going on, and he has a clever catchphrase at the ready.
"We like to put an aesthetic with the athletic," he said. As founder (more than three decades ago) and artistic director of the New York-based modern dance troupe Momix, he summed up his company's identity even more succinctly, following his rhyming mantra with a simple declaration.
"It's a spectacle."
At first glance, Momix is baffling. In fact, last fall, when I first added Momix Botanica to my list of things to cover for this week's issue, I added a comment in the margins: "WTF is this?" Athletic dancers create all manner of shapes and forms onstage, often disappearing into the living sculpture they've created. There are giant swaths of fabric, colored feathers, ruffles, gusts of wind, and generally an odd array of stuff onstage.
"It's contemporary dance, but it's also a multimedia thing," said Chad Oliverson, who works in marketing for the Tulsa PAC Trust. "So you have beautiful projections, beautiful dancers, huge puppetry and props, and they've set Botanica around the four seasons."
"It's a mixture of dance and visual theater," Pendleton said, speaking a little more in-depth. "We use special lighting and props and music to create a fantasy world, and hopefully it's a reality for some people. I see it as a visual theater. We take on themes. We don't really tell stories."
Wait a minute. No stories?
"We try to be evocative and stimulate the imagination," Pendleton said, pre-emptively. "It's the taking of the human form and working with props and costumes to create another world that the audience will enjoy entering."
It's certainly a world Pendleton enjoys entering. Well, it must be, since he's been doing this Momix thing for 33 years. A long time, to be sure, but he said what was probably expected: "It's fun to work with music and lighting and dance and performance, and all these young people keep you young."
With all these strange usages of props and materials and lighting, a Momix show is a surreal thing to behold. These dancers become flowers and butterflies and all sorts of other things. It is among the most visual of experiences. And that isn't by accident.
"It's about the imagery," Pendleton said. "It's fun and sensual, and audiences should really enjoy it. Maybe not think too much. We use the term 'optical confusion,' we want to get the rust off the optical dendrites."
"It's not your average modern dance show," he said. "I think we really work like a sculptor or a painter. It's more than dancers out there doing neat steps. A lot times, you don't even see humans. We might make a centaur or something."
Pendleton was speaking about the Momix experience in general, which covers six different shows, Botanica of which is only one.
"Botanica sort of takes a look through the four seasons, Momix style," Pendleton explained. "We go through the seasons in a unique way, and hopefully a memorable way."
To go with the "optical confusion," Pendleton adds a term to describe himself.
"I'm an avant-gardener," he said. "In my garden at home, I grow a lot of marigolds. So we start out with, 'How can I make a dancer into a marigold,' and then we get into adding the music and the energy and create that in the studio. The sound is very important. It helps bring people out and provides the visual information that you need."
The process of creating a Momix show involves a lot of experimentation, Pendleton said.
"There are no rules to it," he said. "Momix is a poor theater, so we might go to the hardware store and buy something, not really knowing what it's going to be, but we use our ingenuity to make things work."
"In Botanica's case, we wanted to go through the seasons," he said. "We start in the winter, so there's white fabric, and then we change the fabric into a river when the seasons change." Sure, anyone can take a white sheet and think "snow." But someone entirely different has to be the one who comes along and says, "Yeah, and then it's a river." And later in the show, it becomes a flower through some kind of theatrical sorcery.
Irrespective of the process of creating the music list or any one of the Momix shows ("It's just a matter of bowing to Lady Discipline and just working on it," Pendleton said of his process), the fact remains that Momix Botanica shows some of the outrageous things of which the human body is capable. Granted, we're talking about dancers who are young and flexible and in incredible shape, but still, they do so amazing things.
"You get to see the perfection of the human body," Pendleton said. "But you have to be in good shape. You have to be in order to be part of a centaur. There's a lot of walking at right angles."
There are Cirque-like visuals of near-contortionist proportions, there are the aforementioned dazzling visuals related to props and costumes, and there is all the change going on onstage that one would imagine would take place in a show that depicts the changes of the seasons taking place right before the eyes of the audience.
A dance class Pendleton's senior year at Dartmouth led the English literature major to co-found the prestigious dance troupe Pilobolus with Allison Chase, the teacher of that class, and it set him on the path to being the innovative choreographer he is. And from there, things just really took off. He choreographed the closing ceremony of the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, for crying out loud.
"I'm the artistic director and choreographer," he said. "This is a young man's game. These dancers are young and in incredible shape." And this is the only time in the course of an interview that he acquiesced to the forward march of time.
The only march he seems all that concerned with is that of Momix toward audiences. And he calls his shot.
"Expect the unexpected," he said, "because that is what we are going to bring you."
Momix Botanica hits the stage at the Performing Arts Center downtown in the Chapman Music Hall Sunday, April 7 at 7:00pm. Tickets start at $15 and go up to $52 and are available at the E. 3rd Street box office, online at tulsapactrust.org, and by phone at 918-596-7111.
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