Interview | Moses Pendleton
The founder-director of performance group MOMIX talks Hurricane Irene, sunflowers, for-profit and nonprofit business models, being big in Italy and more.
The founder-director of MOMIX, whose Botanica , and I chatted the day after swept through the Northeast. So the first question I asked Moses Pendleton was how his company’s headquarters in rural Washington, Connecticut, fared. He replied that he’d been in a field of sunflowers all day, “packing them in mud and, hopefully, the sun will allow them to go vertical again.”
That sounds like something that would inspire a MOMIX production.
[Laughs] Yeah, right?
Will the next thing we see from you have some kind of sunflower theme?
Well, I work on them every day and take pictures and I follow, well, their demise, in this case. They’re part of my family that I spent almost four months creating, this marvelous set of 10,000 sunflowers. I’ve gotten them up to almost 18 feet high. We brought MOMIX out into the field—this isn’t a garden, mind you, it’s enormous—we brought all the dancers out to perform last rites on Friday, their last day of sun, and I took “before” pictures. Yesterday, it was like walking the battlefield after a terrible war. I was identifying the dead and photographing them, you might say, and actually I got some pretty good “after” pictures, hopefully some good art out of the tragedy, this blooming and dying, right before our very eyes.
You sound inspired.
I was born and raised on a farm. They’ve taken Moses off the farm but they haven’t taken the farmer out of Moses. [Laughs] I’m very influenced by nature, by the plant, the animal and the mineral. I do try to make dance-theater sense out of it and, obviously, in Botanica, [nature has] been quite an influence, in terms of the imagery in the show.
Where is this farm, where you grew up?
Northern Vermont, which, man, they were really flooded out [by Irene]. They’ve never seen anything like that up there. It was incredible.… Now, Connecticut is still pretty rural. MOMIX is based in a converted horse barn. It’s a nice place to work, nice that the dancers can come by to help me straighten some of these sunflowers out. They do that more than willingly. They really enjoy it out here, putting their soul[s] into the soil. The new recruits, I bring them up to weed for awhile, to see if they can really work well with the company. [Laughs]
What was the seed, if you will, of Botanica and when did the show begin to take shape?
Four years ago, I guess, although I’ve always been interested in this theme.… [Botanica] is that feeling of taking a walk in a botanical garden and the logic of surprise at what you find, of one flower leading to another. And then I also try to give the feeling of going through the seasons, beginning in the dead of winter, going through the first sprouts of spring and summer storms, falling leaves and repeating the cycle again. It’s a very loose interpretation of the four seasons.… We don’t tell stories, really, but it’s very physical and, hopefully, very evocative.
It’s clear that these images translate directly into the costuming and the stagecraft. Can you talk about how they get translated into movement?
We use lighting and costumes and sometimes constructions to create the visual idea first, and then the choreography comes toward the end, once we get the [stage] picture, the image. For example, one person went down to the local hardware store and got some sewer pipes, for about 20 cents apiece, this black, flexible tubing that we attached to our arms, and the dancers started to play with it, with nightcrawlers in mind, which became a section that’s quite lovely. [For] another [dance], we put on tutus, several, four or five of them on top of one another, to create a puffball kind of shape, and then we dyed them orange so they look like marigolds. The costumes start on the top [of the body] and, as the dance progresses, the tutus shift down so that it ends looking more like a samba. [We experimented with] those kinds of transformations.… We have a few very interesting props made by Michael Curry: large, turkey-feather fans that we dyed yellow and brown inside, that look like sunflowers. And then, musically, I put together about 30 pieces, anything from Vivaldi to Lisa Gerrard, Bluetech, Peter Gabriel, and made ornithological bridges using various kinds of birdsong, to give the logic behind why we are moving to the next section. If you understood what the birds were saying, they’d be telling you to follow them, you might say.
You do the sound editing?
I do. I’ve done it for all the MOMIX programs.
Do your productions come together in the same manner, like collage?
Yes. Some of these ideas were generated by doing other projects. [Botanica] came together in stages. I did a workshop for Steve Wynn out in Las Vegas, for example, that sort of fell through, but I got some ideas. I was asked to choreograph a fairly big opening for the Frankfurt Auto Show, for Mercedes, maybe three years ago. They were interested in connecting to the natural world for their low-emissions vehicles, this very green idea and they thought that they’d call a green man to help them do it. [Laughs] …You can hold onto these things, put them in your drawer, so to speak. We might throw an idea out of one work that then finds its way back into another. There’s always this idea of remixing, re-looking at things. It’s three, four years on, now, Botanica, and we’re still tinkering with it. It’s still interesting to me.
When did the show open?
In 2009. It had its official world premiere in Bologna, Italy. We do a lot of work in Italy.… A lot of times we’ll go and coproduce ourselves in Rome, in Milan, [or] in Bologna. Being coproducers of our own work works quite well over there.
Has the company always been a for-profit enterprise?
Yes, it has, actually. I don’t know if it’s a perfect system but we’re relatively lean and mean and, as you know, the [nonprofit route] is tricky with foundations and giving, when things are tight, and so, in a way, we’re a little freer, although we are quite dependent on touring in order to keep the company alive.
Why do you think you’re so big in Italy?
We’re into our thirty-first year and we’ve been touring that country from the beginning. I think we’ve been in every [Italian] town and festival and have done a lot of film and television work over the years. So we have a following, and when you have a following, you’re able to go into Rome and do a six-week run, [which is] more of a commercial [approach] than the dance-theater touring circuit in the U.S., where you do your one or two shows and then move on. Eighty percent of our business is outside of the U.S. although we hope to do more [domestic touring]. In Italy, we have a lot of air support, which helps the ground war, if you’ll allow me, [meaning] all of the television specials and productions that we’ve done there. We do about 20 weeks a year in Italy.
Will this be the company’s first appearance at Ravinia?
I believe so, yes. I myself was there in the ’70s, with , but this will be a MOMIX debut.
Is Botanica good for all ages?
Oh, sure. It’s not a kids’ show per se, but it’s sensual and life-affirming and surprising and humorous and the kids really get into it.