NAC Dance: MOMIX makes magic with a desert dreamscape

A scene from Opus Cactus by MOMIX. Photo: Charles Azzopardi

The Berkshire Hills encompass the Litchfield, Connecticut area where Moses Pendleton lives and walks in the New England countryside that echoes with the footsteps of the transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

The founder and artistic director of the innovative dance theatre company MOMIX likes to roam these hills looking for a burning bush to give him inspiration. He often finds it and those sparks of inspiration often find there way into the magical creations that MOMIX is world famous for.

The company is making a return visit to the National Arts Centre for the first time in many years bringing the work Opus Cactus to Southam Hall on Monday and Tuesday.

The work was the product of a commission from Ballet Arizona about 15 years ago. To get his juices flowing on this piece Pendleton spent time in the Arizona desert and was wowed by the fauna and flora in that starkly beautiful place. He was especially taken by the giant Saguaro cacti. But the result isn’t static. MOMIX’s Opus Cactus moves and swirls too emulating the creatures of the desert, such as slithering snakes and lizards.

Pendleton’s journey in dance is almost legendary. As a young man he was a passionate skier who had his heart set on downhil racing and hoped to reach the Olympics one day.

As is often the case in the sport, he broke his leg in a racing accident. Part of his rehab involved taking a ballet class to regain movement and to get back on the ski team.

“I was training to be a downhill racer. Every summer I went off to Oregon and skied with the Austrian ski team. That was my dream. I broke my leg pretty badly.”

He did it again after enrolling at Dartmouth College and got on the ski team there. But he broke the leg again playing soccer. Then took the dance class. His dance teacher “was much more attractive than my ski coach. … The rest is history,” he says.

He started down this path making his own dances. “You never know what is going to happen to you as John Lennon once said. You’ve got to make your own chances.”

He never made it to the Olympics, and that’s a regret, especially while he was watching the Pyeongchang games.

“The point is I had an athletic background and it probably influenced me as a dancer. Also I had a physical education. It wasn’t a classical dance education.” As a senior at Dartmouth in 1971, he went on to co-found an important company called Pilobolus. He founded MOMIX in 1981.

You can see all of that informing works such as Opus Cactus, or in any of the seven or eight shows that MOMIX has on the go at any given time.

He calls it “putting the aesthetic on the athletic.”

It’s also mind over body, he says. “We make up our own material. You have to train the brain just as much as your train the body. You have work at being able to believe the make believe.”

His works are very visual.”You might even say that I take a painterly, sculptural approach to this physical theatre. I work visually first and build out the image and apply music and light. Perhaps light even creates the image. It’s all connected.”

He has always been interested in pictures. In fact, he says he spends most of his time taking photographs. He has had shows of his work in Europe and in the U.S. He takes natural forms, from ice to leaves. “I can;t get enough of it. I click and clack each day.” He shoots with a Nikon d810 SLR camera and is about to buy a Nikon d850. There is some serious coin involved in buying these cameras, reflecting his passion.

It’s all about training the eye, which Pendleton has been doing these many years.

“Specifically with Opus Cactus, I had the opportunity, the New England farm boy skier to go out into the Sonoran Desert and I was just overwhelmed by the flora and fauna. And the magnificent mystery of these giant cactuses in the half-light. I wouldn’t have had that been the theme of the performance if I hadn’t gone into the wilderness.” He spent about six weeks going from his hotel to the desert. It wasn’t a vision quest.

“I didn’t do peyote but I certainly got pricked by cacti. I didn’t step on a rattlesnake but I could have.”

“You pick up information that you bring back to the studio and almost like an alchemist you bring some of your impressions and they end up in your retort. And you translate it all through dancers and through dance theatre.”

The natural world informs him, he says. “I’m inspired by nature.”

The connections to the natural world give his show energy, he believes. “Nature is very mysterious and it is worthy of our reverence. I don’t go to church but I spend a lot of time hiking in the Litchfield hills.”

He is in the middle of workshopping a new show that will premiere about a year from now, he said.

Opus Cactus was first done about 15 years ago and hasn’t really been done much since. It’s almost new to a lot of people, he says.

“It still resonates, audiences like it and people book it so why not do it.” It’s always appropriate to update the piece, he believes.

Pendleton is often listening to music when he is walking in nature and the combination of the aural and visual stimulates ideas, he says. He also likes to jump into a lake when it’s early in the morning. “It does wake you up.”

Even though he isn’t dancing any more, he does maintain a physical regimen.

“You need to be in shape as a choreographer because you may have to repeat something over and over. Without the body I don’t know what the mind is going to be thinking about.

“When we work on a piece we try to work ‘unconsciouslessly, not trying to choreograph, just playing. ” Out of that play might be the seeds of a new dance or two, he says.

He is also not afraid to inject humour into his creations and his daily work.

“The world is a nasty place and I think you can offset it by being positive and not take things too seriously.”

MOMIX presents Opus Cactus
Where: Southam Hall
When: Mar12 and 13 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.