MOMIX artistic director Moses Pendleton on a recent Philadelphia visit

MOMIX artistic director Moses Pendleton on a recent Philadelphia visit

Gregory King

Why this A-list modern dance director loves bringing shows to Philly

MOMIX is world-famous for its stunning acrobatics, and it’s back in town with a brand new show.

For the past 35 years, MOMIX has dazzled theatergoers with inventive ideas that come to life through the sheer physicality of its dancers. Under the direction of Moses Pendleton, the Connecticut-based company has extended its tremendous success from the stage to both film and television — it was featured in the PBS “Dance in America” series and starred in one of the first 3-D IMAX films, “Imagine.”

Live shows continue to draw big audiences around the globe, and Philadelphia is no stranger to the creative evening-length works — the company started performing here 30 years ago, bringing works such as Lunar, Alchemy and Passion to various stages around the city.

MOMIX returns to Philly this month to put on a new program titled Opus Cactus. Originally choreographed for the Arizona Ballet, the show is built on 19 vignettes full of acrobatics like low-flying trapeze, vaulting poles, rolling jungle gym, trampolines and oversized puppetry, all set to a score that moves from Bach to a more contemporary soundscape. It was described by the New York Times as “a sprawling, luscious fantasy,” and had the L.A. Times gushing that the company was “continually miraculous.”

Recently, I sat with Pendleton to chat about his love affair with Philadelphia and all the things that inspire him. A known lover of nature, the articulate director began by talking about the walks he takes to connect with the outdoors. “I know people’s gardens better than I know my own garden,” he said. “And better than they know their own garden!”

He spoke of his love for irises, and how being outside makes him feel free, but he jokingly denied being “a tree-hugger.” Instead, the astute 67-year-old says he connects with the environment in order to feel more alive.

Moving from his relationship with flowers and trees to his relationship with Philadelphia, he wasn’t above sending some love to the city’s famously prickly sports fans. “I’m not gonna lie, I am a diehard Red Sox fan,” he said. “But within six hours of being in Philadelphia, I’m rooting for the Phillies.”

“It’s not that I need a hometown advantage to feel included,” he continued. “I drive to Philadelphia, so it feels like a part of my neighborhood.” Passionately, he spoke about his affection for the City of Brotherly Love — its antiques, beautiful buildings, smart people, good food and nice audiences — acknowledging that he views it almost as an extension of his Connecticut backyard.

Wait a moment, did he actually say Philadelphia audiences were “nice”?  Yes. “MOMIX has a following [here],” he said. “The audiences show up faithfully.”

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Facebook / Momix

Pendleton’s connection extends to the roster of his company. MOMIX dancer Jenna Marie Graves attended Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts and was a member of Eleone Dance Company.

In 2010, Pendleton received an honorary doctoral degree from The University of the Arts, where he delivered the keynote commencement address — an experience that provided vivid memories. It was a hot day, and he was sweating profusely on his way to the ceremony. Upon placing the written speech on the podium, he realized he couldn’t see what he had written. Instead of losing his cool, the moment provided an opportunity for improvisation.

“I felt energized,” he recalled. “What I said [at UArts] was honest…it was genuine.”

His unplanned oration allowed for a more casual connection with the audience, and at one point he encouraged the graduates to embrace living in the moment: “You should cut the wires in your house, but when you get into the wilderness, hook them up again… and see what happens.”

Without offering many specifics, he recalled his introduction to the Philadelphia scene. It was in 1975, when Randy Swartz of Dance Affiliates booked Pilobolus — a company Pendleton had co-founded and was then dancing in — at the Walnut Street Theater.

In 1981, he left to form MOMIX with Allison Chase, and I inquired about the similarities and differences between the two companies. He explained that the aesthetic, which combines athleticism with technology, came from Pilobolus first, where it was developed in collaboration with the performers.

“We were working with athletes who were used to expressing themselves physically but had no experience with classical ballet or a modern dance forms,” he said. “What evolved was a technique combining multiple bodies to create shapes and new means of locomotion you couldn’t do with only one body.

“MOMIX is the green pepper to Pilobolus’ chunk of lamb,” he joked. “I consider myself the skewer for the kebab.”

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Facebook / Max Pucciariello

While Pendleton uses technology to create illusionistic theater, he strongly believes that illusions should be supported by his performers’ impressive physicality and as a result works to delicately balance what is real with what is “Memorex.”

Formerly known as a very stern director, Pendleton claims to have calmed down, and today describes himself as more of a coach. He sees the world as one big dance piece — he embraces the demands of everyday life and uses them as inspirations. An audio recording of his wife giving birth to their daughter Quinn even made a direct showing in the soundtrack for a piece.

Opus Cactus, which kicks off May 11 at the Prince Theater as part of Dance Affiliates’ NextMove Dance, is meant to be a visual journey through the American Southwest. Its opening solo, Fire Dance, was choreographed by Philadelphian Brian Sanders, who toured with MOMIX for 10 years before returning to Philly to form JUNK.

Throughout the show, Pendleton says audiences should expect the unexpected.

“It is the immersion into an experience that comes and goes, but it is in the leaving that you are granted a new experience.”

MOMIX’s Opus Cactus runs May 11 to 15 and 18 to 22 at the Prince Theater, 1412 Chestnut. Tickets are available online.

Gregory King has performed with Donald Byrd/The Group, The Metropolitan Opera and The Lion King on Broadway. In addition to being a dance writer in Philadelphia, he also serves as visiting assistant professor of dance and Consortium on Faculty Diversity Fellow at Swarthmore College. 

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