Pilobolus literally turned dance on its ear when four Dartmouth grads put their own spin on what they saw as movement. You understand why when you talk with Moses Pendleton, one of the original Fab Four who went on to found his own company, Momix. His imaginative nature study, “Botanica,” bounds and creeps and crawls its blooming way into town this weekend via the Pittsburgh Dance Council at the Byham Theater. (See Listings.)
I talked with him on the phone from his shabby chic (peeling paint and all) 1890’s Victorian retreat in northwestern Connecticut, where he rehearses in the barn and runs his $2 to 3 million company out of the basement. There he generously shed the light on all things Moses. But first, just for starters, he was born and raised on a dairy farm in northern Vermont and got a B.A. in English literature from Dartmouth, where he took his first dance class with three other guys. That turned into Pilobolus in 1971 and he transferred his unbounded talents to Momix in 1980, accompanied by his life partner Cynthia Quinn. Since then he has choreographed for the Paris Opera and the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Also included in his wide circle are Arizona Ballet, the Romanian gymnastics team, Prince, the Montreal symphony, Julian Lennon and ballet superstar Diana Vishneva. He is also an avid photographer…particularly of sunflowers.
A simple question sends him off like a pinball machine, except he has the timing of a stand-up comedian. Part philosopher, part environmentalist, part run-on sentence. Follow along…if you can.
THE NAME. Where did Momix come from? Well, like everything he invents, it could have been derived from multiple sources. It was originally a milk supplement from the Holstein-Friesian calves that he raised as a farm boy in Vermont, “so you’ve taken me off the farm, but you really haven’t taken the farm out of Momix,” he quips. Actually the supplement used to have two o’s, like Moomix. “It’s also kind of an alchemical idea about mixing and Moses Mix and whatever disparate objects we can find that we can drop into that retort and spin them. And maybe it’s a good mix and comes out a golden idea, but [that’s] not always the case. What it comes down to is the idea of mixing not just dance, but visual, physical theater, various kinds of principles that might be from athletics, fine art or sculpture, whatever it is. We try to put it in the mix, so that’s what it kind of means currently, I guess.” Some people have jokingly said that the name is really “Mom 9.”
THE CREATIVE PROCESS. “I just came from an icy lake in the remnants of Hurricane Lee. I’m the only human out there which is pleasant for me — I go out there to do my thinking. People say, ‘Where’s Moses?’ Well he’s gone to work in the lake. That’s why I have my own company. I’m the boss — I can go to the lake and work. It’s very good in terms of being able to move and breathe and have another gravity. I don’t get too many ideas sitting still — I have to keep moving, whether I’m walking in the woods — I rarely go without being wired, wired in the wilderness, an avant gardner.
CAREER. Moses says that his life was bounded by having to capitalize on accidents. For example, his father died when he was twelve and “all of a sudden the farming didn’t seem to work out.” A downhill skiing accident got him to take that fateful dance class at Dartmouth. “It’s a matter of going with the flow or going with the flower and taking advantage of those surprises that inevitably will happen to you.”
FLOWER POWER. With a mind as fleet as a shooting star, Moses stays grounded by “organizing tens of thousands of sunflowers in some very obvious symmetrical patterns. That kind of symmetry allows the chaotic mind to be massaged with enough to stay grounded. Otherwise I would be frolicking around in Alpha Centauri [the brightest star in the southern constellation of Centaurus] with no umbilical [cord] to get back, the difference I suppose between the artist and the mad man. There is a very slight difference, except the artist has that little cord that he feels he can come back. Otherwise he keeps going and part of what I need to do and am encouraged to do and am expected to do is to keep going out there — out, out, out.”
JOHN LENNON. “What keeps me grounded is coming back and seeing that very far out is in your own back yard. It’s all, as John Lennon said, just underneath your nose. When you think you’re doing some great kind of great art and other things are happening that are more profound if you could realize it (that’s a bad paraphrase).”
ODORIFIC. “It’s not just smelling the roses but letting the marigolds and sunflowers begin to talk to you and they will only begin to talk to you if you first introduce yourself and begin to talk to them. Then you begin to understand the language of flowers.” (Actually Moses is considered an expert on sunflowers.)
GROUNDING. “The natural world grounds me. That’s sunlight and water and air — very simple, but profound elemental essential things for humans and me in particular. I will follow the sunrise and, like a sunflower, face the source throughout the day. On a cloudy day I will build a fire, light a candle or stare at a sunflower, which I’m doing right now — they’re the closest thing to the source that I know of. I worship them because they ground me and they allow me in my grounded state to take off. I give myself that discipline and restriction — just here in the back yard and the garden. That’s all you need to know. Just pay close attention to it with audio, with video, with pen in hand, that kind of thing. Some of this good enthusiasm, this energy, this kind of process of living will find itself reflected in the work that I’m associated with.”
THE SECRET. “The secret to everything is not to lose touch with whatever it is that excites you — whether it’s dreams and fantasy and foolishness and all this kind of thing.”
COMPANY REHEARSAL. “I’m like a catalyst, close to an Energizer Bunny when I go in there. My enthusiasm sometimes terrorizes them.”
“BOTANICA.” “It’s the Momix version of the four seasons. It starts with icy cold, dead winter, moves through the melting snows and the first buds of spring and midsummer nights’dreams and frenzies and a wild dance of the centaurs that leads to August storms and falling leaves and snow falling again to repeat the cycle.”
MORE FLOWER POWER. Yes, there’s a sunflower and marigold section — “you can’t miss them. You take a simple prop like a tutu and multiply by four on one girl — tutu times four. As the dance progresses, it starts on the top and they slowly move the petticoats or the marigolds down and it actually creates a different dance style as they are metamorphosing. And suddenly they are doing samba and then they go off on their marigold carpets.”
DANCE BALANCE. Given the large number of props, puppets by Michael Curry (“The Lion King”) and multiple costume changes, there is a danger that the dance can be suffocated. But Moses says, “There is quite a bit of dance in the show, so the dancers are happy. Their ballet barre is not in vain.”
CREATURE DANCE. “Certain pieces initially constrict or hold back. but if they’re smart and they figure out a way to survive, they can begin to take something that was restrictive and constrictive and dance your way out of it, you know, make a dance. Put on these corrugated sewer pipes and your arms look like you’re handcuffed and see if you can make a night crawler seem like it is as free as a bird. You may not be too free as a human. But as a worm, you’re covering space pretty nicely. Okay worms, let’s try that again [in rehearsal].”
TARGET AND HANES. “There’s a lot of nuts and bolts reality to bring dreams to the general public,” Moses says of his decision to be a profit-making dance theater company. That means commercials like the above-mentioned. “The corporate world can help. Fantasy is an integral part of reality,” he explains of his artistic approach. “The world is in trouble enough — I don’t like to add to that.”
CONNECTIONS. When asked to work with the Paris Opera Ballet, Moses accepted. “I worked with Holsteins, so I figured I could work with ballet dancers. You have to understand what you can do to bring them out. They’re a strange breed, a strange animal, but capable, definitely capable. And surprising, so I was fascinated by it. Full of fancy.”
AT THE START. Moses brought “a bunch of renegades” to his father’s farm to form the Vermont Natural Theater. He knew the Holsteins would follow him if he donned a white sheet, which he did. So the audience had the effect of a stampede of black-and-white Holsteins coming directly at them, led by a “little Casper figure running ahead of them.” Then he dove into a ditch right in front of the audience. The cows “lost the object of their pursuit and started grazing. Then someone would ring a little bell and the audience would be encouraged to go to a spruce grove and see a dance on a stump with one leg or a bird imitation and it went on like that. That was the origin of Vermont Natural Theater and I was a cowographer rather than a choreographer — those were the formative years.”