Moses Pendleton – An Alchemist of Movement

“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” Friedrich Nietzsche

In 1971, Moses Pendleton, Jonathan Wolken, and Steve Johnson found themselves in Alison Becker Chase’s dance composition class at Dartmouth College. None were dancers. Pendleton was a lit major and cross-country skier; Wolken a philosophy science major and fencer; Johnson, pre-med, was a pole-vaulter and track runner. “Alison was wise enough to see we weren’t classically trained and in the first week had us improvising, perfecting the imperfections of our own bodies.” The sentence is sheer Pendleton, almost a zen koan.

Initially, the three were just having fun. “It was a time when people ran off into the woods… Johnson showed me how the track team stretched their backs in pairs and we wondered how it would be to put someone in the middle.” The form became something often referred to as “body-linked acrobatics.” It was a new vocabulary of movement, a combination of dance, theater, vaudeville, and athletics. They worked in jeans because parents were against men in leotards.

Moses Pendleton, Jonathan Wolken, Robby Barnett in Pilobolus’ “Cigna”

Within months, Pilobulus (named after a fungus) was opening for Frank Zappa at Smith College. “I played on a honey jar, Johnson on a saw…” Dancer/choreographers Murray Louis and Alwin Nickolais were encouraging. Dance critic Anna Kisselgoff gave them a superb review. The heady experience caused everyone to reexamine future possibilities. Still, when Zappa asked that they tour with him, the young men turned him down. (Johnson went on to become a fine surgeon.)

Pendleton, Wolken, and “a bunch of runaway hippies” then established The Vermont Natural Theater which presented site specific shows. An early piece was the ritual running of the Holstein cows. (After the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.) Observers stood on a hillside. The artist placed a sheet over his head and ran towards high ground zigzagging in front of 50 cows who apparently, not unusually, followed. “Just before I got to the audience, I jumped into a ditch. The cows immediately stopped and began to graze. I was a cow-eographer.” Having been raised on a dairy farm, Pendleton knew the proclivities of his cast.

Dolly and Moses Pendleton

Nine years later, he exited Pilobolus and formed the now 38 year-old MOMIX, named after a milk supplement for veal calves. Martha Clarke and Alison Chase joined. I ask about the collaborative process for which both companies are famous.

“I don’t think the birds or morning sunlight get enough credit for collaboration…if something works, you use it.” Anyone can suggest, but not everyone decides. MOMIX is evidently a bit more helmed than Pilobolus. “Part of the experience for our performers is  the challenge of being creative.” One has only to read the diverse program bios of company members to get a sense of the fertile soil from which it draws.

MOMIX’s web site uses the term Illusionist Choreography. “There’s an optical confusion aspect here. We’re trying to create something the eye hasn’t observed  before…like seeing your aunt’s face in a rotting pumpkin…”

Moses Pendleton dancing the signature “MOMIX”

Pendleton is extremely inspired by nature. “’Not saying I’m a tree hugger, but I wouldn’t put it past myself.” An avid photographer, he’s planted 10,000 sunflowers – his current favorite subject, on his and his neighbors’ land. “The town was originally called Judea, so here I am, Moses, wandering fields among organic vegetables and 12 flowers looking for burning bushes. An alley of these is a spiritual car wash.”

“To understand what I am saying, you have to believe that dance is something other than technique. We forget where the movements come from. They are born from life. When you create a new work, the point of departure must be contemporary life — not existing forms of dance.” Pina Bausch

“I think of myself as a visual artist and then apply music and steps. Light, costume, sound, and sequence are as important to me as choreography. ” Pendleton, who’s lived on the farm since 1975, installed quadraphonic sound in his barn studio. “I use music to open people up, videotaping sessions of free movement.” Available props include rubber balls, plastic pvc pipes, fabric, empty barrels, and discarded mannequins. Take a moment to conjecture use of these.

When bicycling, he listens to sound samples on Spotify. For this artist, it’s a kind of meditation. Anything can be turned into music just as anything can morph into dance. Pendleton is also working on MAP= Moses’ Archive Project, kind of an aural journal he calls “verbal discharge” recorded on MP3.

Rehearsal Photos: Equilibre Monaco

Daily class is occurring as we speak. A few dancers commute, some are hired only for a program or “pick-up gigs-you know, weddings, bar mitzvahs” (not really),  others live on premises during the season. They naturally tend to socialize. “If I had my way, we’d all be dancing naked at a bonfire. The past was more like that,” my subject says wistfully. There are currently two companies, one appearing in New York, the other off to Italy. An early performance is videotaped when he’s not along. It arrives in Dropbox within an hour. “They know we’re watching them.”

Pendleton “runs” MOMIX with his professional and life partner, Cynthia Quinn, who indispensably takes care of day to day affairs “giving me the chance to create. All these years we’ve remained a mom n’ pop organization. There’s no board of directors; the office is in the basement of a Victorian house with peeling wallpaper…”

Currently in development is an evening long piece based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. “I decided to look at it more carefully. Some music will be organic, experiential…iconic phrases… we might try to make a caterpillar out of exercise balls. Photography will also be employed. I’ve found new reflective screens that allow you to see right through an image…”

Moses Pendleton among his sunflowers

The only wish on Pendleton’s Bucket List is securing underwriting for a national tour to schools. It’s easy to imagine kids’ delight in these inspired pieces. Exposure to new ways of seeing, of bending established definitions (as well as bodies), and manifest ingenuity can only be valuable.

Oh, and he wants to finish the new piece “so I can take longer naps.” Coming from a man who not only keeps MOMIX humming all year, but takes outside work on feature films, television, opera, ballet, and commercial celebrations as well as designing/ choreographing the Opening Ceremonies for 2014’s Sochi Olympics, one wonders how long he’s able to stay still. He and Quinn are self avowed homebodies, but look what they’ve done with their home!  “I divide up my day into periods like I’m still in high school.”

Moses Pendleton has the kind of open mind illustrated in Monty Python art – hinged, with unexpected ideas frequently tumbling in and out. He’s articulate, inventive, curious, and provocative, exactly as one might cast the founder of two ground-breaking companies.

“I like the fact I didn’t miss too much or have any regrets. I’m lucky to still experience the mystery and the mojo. As you get older you should get bolder.”

All unattributed quotes are Moses Pendleton

Opening Photo: Giulio Lapone

All unattributed photos courtesy of MOMIX

MOMIX will play The Joyce Theater July 24-August 12. Click for the website.  

About Alix Cohen (506 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.