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Memphis Flyer The Tricksters

Dance company Momix defies the eye.

By Ashley Fantz

APRIL 17, 2000:  Tell Moses Pendleton to break a leg.

After all, it worked once for the director of Momix, an inspired vaudevillian dance company. As a skier on scholarship at Dartmouth, a spill on the mountain landed the agile athlete in dance class for the first time.

"I was trying to recoup, and I took the class because it was physical and available," he says. "It was a class of similarly athletic people, not necessarily dancers, and we were lucky that the teacher had the insight to choreograph to our talents. We weren't expected to twinkle around doing Swan Lake."

Like Momix and its predecessor Pilobolous -- both founded by Pendleton -- the dance idiom is presented as a physical sculpture. Bodies are positioned and held for a second before fluidly transitioning into another visual image. Frequently called dance illusionists and using props and acrobatics similar to Cirque de Soleil, Momix is famous for its surreal, almost other-planetary performances. Skis, poles, balloons, screens, hula hoops, puppets, baseball bats -- they turn the athletic into the aesthetic.

Three shows have taken the company's separate touring troupes across the world, including a cartoonish interpretation of America's favorite pasttime, Baseball, which features oversize sports equipment. One of the numbers, Passion is performing to standing Os in Rome now.

The 78-minute Passion came from Pendleton's collaboration with musician Peter Gabriel. Most of the dancing takes place behind a scrim illuminated with changing images from a slide projector in this "hymn to the natural creative energy of the universe."

"It's a series of dissolving images, a bird and a rattlesnake, in fact. It becomes a movie," Pendleton says. "You may have to take several mental steps to figure out the theme -- it plays on that though, our own need to understand everything, to have a theme, to hone something down until it becomes not beautiful images on their own, but something explainable."

The symbiosis between live flesh and images is dazzling in Passion. Human limbs become tree limbs. Legs slide between legs like tall grass whipping in a strong wind. Momix's movement is not short on the erotic. A woman's pulsating, quick movements seem at first purely gymnastic until it becomes apparent that a man's legs are entwined in the fabric of her costume.

Orbit combines slapstick and ethereal, geometric classicism. Dancers spin on poles; some are suspended in the air for longer than seems humanly possible.

"Our dancers certainly have more upper body strength than what many ballet dancers might have," Pendleton says from his office two hours outside New York City and far away from the noisy distractions of urban living.

The choreographer prefers to take his music from nature -- although fear not. Yanni or the sounds of a waterfall will not be in the GPAC program. Count on newly remastered Dead Can Dance and Art of Noise tunes with heavy doses of electronica.

Pendleton has built a career on juxtaposing the natural world with the math and exactness of choreography. He credits an attraction to nature with his upbringing in northern Vermont. And yearly, writers and other artists gather at his home in the countryside for dinner and poetry readings against the glow of a massive sunflower garden. It's his job, he says, to be outside most of the day with earphones on listening to music, reminding himself to look up.

"I never like to be inside, in any conventional and artificial lighting," he says. "I go into the woods and explore my dances with chipmunks. In college I got a chemistry professor up at 5 a.m. and sat him on a rock. At a certain time, the shaft of sunlight filled this space behind a tree and I danced against its shadow."

Pendleton got an A for illustrating that to appreciate the science of nature, art should be created from it. The undergraduate became notorious for similar projects. Call his senior thesis "cowography."

"God, my early days well, I used Holstein cows on a green hillside and then threw a white sheet over my head and ran in between the cows," he says. "I wanted to give the classes a feeling of a stampede. At the end, I dove into this ditch and the cows went back to grazing."

There is no idea too bizarre for Pendleton or his dancers. He created a number underwater for Momix. In another, the dancers run across the stage on all fours.

"People have a curiosity for what they're seeing, how we're playing with gravity. Shadow play, magic, it's all about keeping an audience's attention."

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