Momix: taking it to the top

by Ken Kawashima

Moses Pendleton remembers well his first taste of live performance. He was an elementary school kid when his father — a dairy farmer in northern Vermont — hired his young son to show off his prized Holstein cows at the county fair. “My job was to walk the animals around and make them look good in order to win the blue ribbon,” says Pendleton, 55, artistic director of the U.S. dance company Momix. “I called it cowography.”

His use of bovines as spectacle didn’t stop there. During the late 1960s, while an English major at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., he expanded on the idea by setting up a stage on a hillside farm near his home. The show was simple: The budding dancer just draped himself with a white sheet and ran down a long slope toward the audience followed by a herd of 15 cows.

However, by the time Pendleton had cofounded the dance company Pilobolus in 1971, he had scrapped his live cow act to pursue a more serious and radical style of modern dance that pushed the physical limits of human body movement and fired the imagination. In 1980 he founded Momix (coined from “Moses’ mix”) and began to assemble a highly skilled group of more than 30 dancers from diverse backgrounds — not only from classical ballet and modern dance, but also from areas such as gymnastics and rock climbing. The result was a physical style of dance-theater that fused near-Olympian acrobatics, circus-like stunts and all the dynamics of a contact sport. The sheer physicality of the Momix dancers — combined with their shows’ visual orgy of lights, mammoth stage props and loud music — has enabled this group to enthrall even the most dance-illiterate of crowds, everywhere they go.

“This is my notion of theater,” says Pendleton, speaking over the phone from the company’s headquarters in Connecticut. “It shouldn’t bore you and make you go to sleep — it should be evocative.” Later this month, Tokyo audiences will be able to witness the magic of Momix firsthand, when the popular company plays a weeklong series of shows at Tokyo International Forum, from Jan. 18, marking the group’s second visit to Japan in eight years. The shows, which play only in Tokyo, will consist of two separate performances: “Passion,” based loosely on the events surrounding the crucifixion of Christ, Jan. 18-20, and “Opus Cactus,” a fantastic paean to desert wildlife inspired by Pendleton’s treks into the Arizona flatlands, Jan. 21-23.

Last month, TV viewers in Japan were given a sampling of what to expect from the upcoming Momix shows, when the group made a guest appearance on “Daredemo Picasso (Anybody Can Be Picasso),” an artsy TV show hosted by Beat Takeshi. The highlight of their five-minute segment, which combined elements from both “Passion” and “Opus Cactus,” was no doubt the shocking entrance of four male Momix dancers slithering onto the set on their stomachs. The men, all dressed in red- and olive-colored body suits with insect-like tentacles protruding from their heads, with each dancer interlinked between another’s head and groin, rolled forward in one writhing reptilian chain. The wave-like monstrosity then suddenly broke, sending one dancer flying off into an acrobatic break-dance-like backspin.

“The Gila Dance” is just one of the many strange Pendleton concoctions that appear in the two-part “Opus Cactus” show, which features an eclectic soundtrack that spans from Australian aboriginal music to Brian Eno to Bach. While it’s obvious that Pendleton draws most of his inspiration from the natural environment and wildlife he grew up with, and continues to surround himself with in Connecticut, it frequently poses quite a challenge to his dancers when it comes down to translating these wild ideas into actual movement in the studio.

“I remember when I first started rehearsing for the [Momix] company I was basically going to the gym for several weeks straight because I had no upper-body muscles,” says Kara Oculato, who was one of the principal dancers of the Hartford Ballet in the late ’90s. “The strength that is required to dance for Momix is more like that of an athlete.”

The Momix connection with sports runs deep. Jun Kuribayashi, 25, the group’s sole Japanese member, only started his formal dance training three years ago. Before joining the Momix crew last August, he was a break-dancer and expert in the Afro-Brazilian martial arts form capoeira. Pendleton himself, before he took his first dance class at the age of 18, was an amateur ski racer who won the Vermont cross-country ski championships in 1967.

It is, perhaps, this rigorous and oftentimes competitive training environment that keeps even eight-year Momix vets like Brian Simerson spending several hours a day pumping iron and working out at the local fitness club — in addition to participating in the members’ mandatory daily dance classes.

The 32-year-old artist says that the physically demanding aspects of dance, when pushed to its limit, can take on a more spiritual dimension. “It’s important for the mind, body and spirit to be aligned with each other because they all feed from each other,” says Simerson. “So when you’re working the physical of the body and also the spirit of the body, all your stress is released and one finds harmony within oneself and thus the universe too.”

According to Michael Riggs, the group’s production stage manager and lighting supervisor, however, there’s more to Momix than just a showy display of brawny dance talent. “We bring a lot of things into the show that don’t exist in other companies, like magic and illusion,” he says. “Part of the fun of a Momix show is seeing something that you can’t immediately explain. “You’ll find yourself saying: ‘How are they doing that?’ “

Indeed, in “Tracking the Earth,” another “Opus Cactus” segment, sleekly suited men and women stretched flat on tiny, wheeled boards, scurry back and forth across the stage at high speed like a hyperactive swarm of insects. In “Passion,” which is set to the Peter Gabriel score for Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” onstage dancers perform behind a full scrim on which a continuous series of images of pyramids, glaciers, Renaissance paintings and flowers (all photographed by Pendleton) are projected.

Considering the amount of care given to small technical details and large spectacles, it’s not surprising to learn that the first Momix performance was a solo dance performed by Pendleton for the closing ceremonies of the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics (which he also choreographed).

For Pendleton, it somehow seems that the whole world of Momix — as the name suggests — is not just about creating a new dance art form, but ultimately realizing onstage his own more Dionysian alter-ego: Even the latest Momix piece he is currently working on, called “Lunar Seas,” will be an ode to the moon. “I’m almost like a sculptor who creates a sculpture and says you have to see this three or four times a day because your opinions will change depending on the angle of the light on the bronze,” he says.

And while his company’s upcoming Tokyo shows should no doubt prove to be an eye-opening or even mind-expanding experience for both aficionados and those yet to be exposed to dance-theater, Pendleton is confident his Tokyo fans will intuitively understand exactly where he’s coming from.

“It’s that dairy background of playing games with the reality of the northeastern kingdom of Vermont, which was farms, skis and not necessarily dance studios,” he says. “I like to make contact with those spirits that find themselves in the bodies of animals, sunflowers and rocks.

“To me, I think that’s very Japanese.”