|Sonoran Gila monster in Opus Cactus Momix press photo|
Momix. Mo-dern dance, mix-ed with balletic pointework, gymnastics, sleights of lighting, and circus-y tricks. I call it dance-tainment, but Momix artistic director Moses Pendleton calls it visual theater. Whatever label you want to put on it, it’s always fun and fabulously inventive. Momix brings Opus Cactus – a full-length spool of dreamlike, moving tableaux that played Overture Hall when it was brand-new, in 2004 – back to that venue on Tuesday, Feb. 6.
Pendleton, as an English Lit student at Dartmouth in the early ‘70s, discovered abstract dance theater pioneers Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis and found his calling as a choreographer. Pendleton co-founded Pilobolus Dance Theater in 1971 and left that company a decade later to start Momix. There are still some similarities between these two venerable arts organizations, and in the works of both, Nikolais’ theater of magic and illusions and Louis’ sense of humor remain vivid after all these years.
I’ve interviewed Pendleton a number of times. In addition to Nikolais and Lewis he always cites jazz, and the Bread and Puppet Theater as his main inspirations. Last week, in preparation for the return of Opus Cactus, I asked him (on the phone) if he’s acquired any new gurus since we last spoke.
“I’m glad you asked,” said Pendleton, who lives and works in rural Connecticut. “I don’t think I ever give the morning sunlight and the bluejays eating my sunflowers enough credit.”
Opus Cactus leaves no doubt that nature plays a huge role in Pendleton’s creative process. So I asked him another question about that.
CulturalOyster: When Opus was new, you told me
“I go into the world of nature and make contact with other forms. It’s an environmental, psychological approach. To create this piece I spent six weeks doing quality research in the Sonoran desert, walking at sunset, seeing all those strange formations in changing light. Then I brought the mystery of this scene without water into the dance studio to create with it.”
So here’s my question: Today, our natural resources are being sold to the highest bidders, and the Sonoran desert might soon be cut in two by a “big, beautiful, impenetrable wall.” Do the changes in our social reality change the impact – the importance – of Opus Cactus?
Pendleton: I never heard anyone say that before, about the wall making the work more important. I don’t really know the answer to that. The piece was done fifteen years ago and it still has resonance. People are seeing something positive and uplifting and strange that lets them escape their own realities for an hour and a half.
But the natural resources of your own imagination and the freedom to think freely are definitely in trouble. We need to nurture those things. It’s a tricky world as to what’s fake and what’s true. Since I deal with fantasy and fiction I just worry about being true to my own nature. The world is filled with negative news – that’s what’s fit to be print. For me, I try to escape a lot of it, though. I read five newspapers a day to keep up with what’s going on, but then I want to hide from it. Whatever we come up with [in Momix’s creative process] is more on the positive and hopeful side. That doesn’t mean I don’t have black thoughts, but I don’t revel in them or try to put them out in what I create.
CulturalOyster: You’ve done new work since Opus Cactus – what made you decide to revive that particular piece?
Pendleton: Alchemy, which I did in 2012, is my latest and favorite, but it never got on the full US circuit – it’s too bad that one never made it to Madison. But there was a lot of popular request for Opus Cactus, and we did it again a couple of years ago – our agent in New York likes it and gave it a twirl. We found enough sponsors to tour it again, and it’s like a new generation is seeing it for the first time.
CulturalOyster: The company must have turned over quite a bit since 2004, when I first saw Opus. I know your dancers have a some input into your works, in that you ask them to interpret your ideas rather than giving them pre-set choreography. How does company turnover change the work?
Pendleton: When you build on new people do you invest in their natural abilities? That’s what I do. I have a series of improvs that get people to play with the theme and you start sensing what’s inside of them and you make the sessions into serious play, videotaping every day and finding new material that way.
People bring different abilities to the table. In one scene a woman comes out of a cactus. Once she was on pointe – that is, that dancer’s interpretation was balletic. The current girl is very good, but she does it differently. The process goes on and on – now we have a young dancer, eighteen years old, with wonderful classical technique. She’s very good on pointe, and she’s learning Opus for the first time. I’m looking forward to seeing how she interprets the pieces. It [the woman emerging from the cactus] is a very challenging solo but I think it would improve the piece if she can handle it.
Opus has changed in a lot of ways. The structure is the same as in 2004. But when choreographers get too close to their work they can’t make necessary changes. When you revive a work, you have the opportunity to come back to it with fresh eyes. You have a chance to say “that was good, but let’s see if we can’t make it better.” It becomes an old piece interpreted in new way. By watching it and teaching it after you’ve been away from it you learn more about it. The process revives the memory and then you change the memory.
CulturalOyster: What’s next for Momix, after the Opus Cactus tour?
Pendleton: This year I have a lot of pressure to do a new show. We’re hoping to premiere it about a year from now, which means I have to get to work in March. There’s a lot of interest in doing our own interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, using that known story as a red line. If we do something like that and we want to make a caterpillar, is it made of four people? How physical do you want to make the imagery? It’s not just one human body, but collectified bodies. The question is how to use the body to see the non-body – to get forms that aren’t just human but also non-human though having life force (or not).
I’m doing a lot of photography. I’m trying to see how the new piece might start with photographs – is there a way to mix that interest into the fabric of a new work? With Balanchine, people would say what’s your next piece and he’d say I don’t know, I haven’t chosen the music yet. For me right now it’s sit by the fire every night with coffee and candlelight and listen to four or five hours of music. There was an exhibit at the Whitney not long ago about synesthesia – paintings made through music, the way people can sometimes hear colors or taste sounds. Maybe using photographs with a score for whatever we do next will turn out be something like synesthesia.
_____________________________________ interview by SK