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Kerry Clawson  |  September 29, 2011

Momix dancers bring flora, fauna to life

Momix dancers bring flora, fauna to life

By Kerry Clawson

Beacon Journal staff writer

It would be an understatement to say that choreographer Moses Pendleton is a nature lover.

He both reveres nature and lives at one with it in Washington, Conn., where he has a rural property and a turn-of-the-century Victorian home surrounded by flower gardens, woods, fields and a lake.

Pendleton, founder and artistic director of the 31-year-old Momix dance company, spends his afternoons dreaming with his sunflowers, which are a great source of inspiration for both his dances and his photography. Home and work are combined in one tranquil setting, where an old barn has been converted into a studio for his dance company, with its offices on the lower level. In a recent phone interview, Pendleton spoke from his wrap-around porch, where he was taking in the beauty and color of his Russian mammoth sunflowers, which he has grown to 18 feet.

"Flowers definitely have a language and something to tell us, but they don't have a voice, and maybe in Momix's own small, humble way, we've given them a voice."

Flowers are featured heavily in Momix's evening-length dance Botanica, which the company will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at E.J. Thomas Hall to kick off DanceCleveland's 2011-2012 season. (Call 330-972-7570 for tickets.) The company will be transformed into flora, fauna and even prehistoric creatures as audiences are transported by Pendleton's fertile imagination through the rhythm of the seasons and the evolution of the world.

The dance uses special lighting, costumes, puppets and projections to make connections between human and nonhuman world. In this way, Pendleton says, he and his dance troupe can bring his garden to people in cities throughout the world for Momix's own versions of the four seasons.

"It's been very influenced by what you might find if you were taking a kind of magical walk in a botanical garden and were surprised by what nature has to offer, if you open your eyes and your ears and allow it to happen," Pendleton said of Botanica, which premiered in Torrington, Conn., in 2009 and has been met with awe and enthusiasm from audiences since.

Pendleton's work on Botanica allowed him to combine his two great passions: the natural world and the world of theater. His 2-acre marigold garden, planted in the shape of a giant sun with 16 rays, was the inspiration for the section of the dance titled "Four Tutus." Here, female dancers don four deep orange tutus stacked on top of each other to create the puffy look of the marigold.

Pendleton starts with the visual image, builds the costume so the dancers can metamorphose into that image of nature, and then adds the music and the choreography.

In Botanica, vegetable, animal and mineral are all created by the human form, including worms that turn the soil in March, "preparing the soil for birth."

As night crawlers, dancers wear black, flexible corrugated sewer pipe on their arms, and must learn to crawl. Identifying with these natural objects, even the rocks, is key for the dancers, so Pendleton gets them weeding in his garden.

"Sometimes it's difficult for dancers to play in the roles of rocks and worms," Pendleton said. "I try telling the dancers they should find their soul in the soil."

It's all about paying attention to your natural environment, the choreographer said: "Why have a backyard if you don't go out in it? Why have a dance company in the country if you don't use the country to energize the dance?"

Botanica starts in the dead of winter with a white landscape. Fans make fabric turn above as dancers move beneath in the glacial scene. Evocative imagery moves through the torrents of spring waters, Bacchanal midsummer and the falling leaves of autumn, all created by dancers/illusionists.

The Momix troupe that will perform in Akron this weekend will include five men and five women. A second troupe will soon perform in Spain and Italy for six weeks. The popular company has worked on stages throughout the world and in film and TV, including a national commercial for Hanes underwear.

Pendleton, 62, one of the founding members of Pilobolus at Dartmouth College in 1971, broke off from that company to form Momix in 1980. The name comes from the choreographer's farm roots: It's a powdered milk supplement for veal calves. Pendleton says he makes his own daily shake with blueberries, yogurt and Momix, and we're not sure if he's kidding.

These days, he prefers to stay home in Connecticut and talk to his flowers. He's preparing another photography show and also has made his own movie, shooting his flowers at high speed in the early morning with a high-definition camera. In this way, the vibrant blooms become personified.

"It's really a ballet with no dancers," Pendleton said. "The wind shows you how sunflowers can dance."

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