The company rehearses in a renovated horse barn in Washington, Conn., surrounded by tens of thousands of sunflowers and marigolds.
“The barn is just resurrected, brand new,” said Moses Pendleton, who founded Momix in 1981. “The old one caved in from snow last winter. But It’s still a barn. It still has a feeling of doing chores. I have seeding and watering to do.”
Company dancers help in the work and come out before rehearsal to weed, he said, and late in the summer he holds a company dinner around a wood fire and lights the field after dark — 16 rays of giant sunflowers flickering in the night.
Lighting plays a dramatic role in his company’s performances as well. Momix is known for what Pendleton calls optical confusion, a visual theater mixing sight, sound and the body, staging and magic.
This weekend the company celebrated 35 years of performances with “Viva Momix,” a compilation drawn from works including “Passion,” “Baseball,” “Botanica,” “Lunar Sea,” and “Alchemia,” at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington.
Pendleton describes a series of fast-moving vignettes with costumes and props from poles to kinetic sculptures. The company will perform a few new works from the last year as well, only seen so far in Italy — built around giant rolls of paper, or the dancers’ arms glowing like snow geese in black light.
One new piece he imagined out of an arrangement of Christmas lights in Beaver Creek, Colo. After a day of skiing, he said, he would sit watching the streaming lights against the sky. So he put them on dancers in the dark.
He considers Momix a visual theater company rather than a dance company, he said. In its early days he felt the influence of Modern dancers and choreographers who incorporated multi-media — especially Murray Louis and Alwin Nikolais’ abstract, celestial choreography — and of Julian Beck, co-founder of The Living Theatre, and experimental, physical theater companies of the ’60s and ’70s.
In “Viva Momix” he touches on work throughout Momix’s history. “Alchemia” distills
earthly elements, Carl Jung (known for his psychological philosophy of opposites in balance) and W.B. Yeats.
“Botanica” invokes natural phenomena — cloth rippling like water, an umbrella-like shape like giant jellyfish, or a body reflected into symmetrical forms.
Pendleton’s sunflowers find their way into the work as well. He finds a powerful energy in a plant that can grow from the size of a thumbnail to a Redwood sapling in 80 days.
The natural world inspires many of his movements, from human to plant, animal and mineral, and the name of the company, he said — Momix comes from the Northern Vermont diary farm where he grew up. It is a powdered milk supplement his family used to feed to dairy calves.
“The essential thing is the mixing,” he said, “combining of disparate ideas, transformation, metamorphosis. We also use mixing as a musical term. … In the early ’80s, we were talking about sound mixes.”
In “Viva Momix,” the sound track ranges from Massive Attack’s trip hop rock to the rhythms of the Southwestern desert, Bach, bird song or Peter Gabriel.
Pendleton and the Momix dancers often work collaboratively, he said; as he shapes a performance, he will go in and let people play and record their improvisations. That kind of collective trance and excitement gives the work energy.
“You go out for an afternoon of play in the barn,” he said, “and in the sobriety of the next morning’s coffee, you see the seeds of a new dance.”
Having a chance to explore appeals to the company, he said, and to him.
He has many influences outside the dance world, from agriculture and athletics to college friends. He recalled English professors at Dartmouth who stimulated him to read Moby-Dick and Hawthorne and Pablo Neruda — and the Austrian ski team CHECK who travelled with him to a glacier in Oregon every summer.
“They were courageous,” he said, “as as mad as you can imagine. They were fast — they didn’t mind being cold — they liked sunlight — they had a real gleam in their eyes.”
Pendleton began college as an English major and a skier, but he left on the path that would lead to the stage. In a dance composition class taught by Alison Becker Chase he met Jonathan Wolken, a philosophy science major and fencer, and Steve Johnson, a pre-med pole-vaulter. Pendleton remembered jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, who came into that class to teach improv drumming.
“He helped us as movers to trust our own sense of rhythm,” Pendleton said.
When they graduated, Pendleton, Wolken and Johnson created the dance company Pilobolus in 1971 — and it is still performing internationally. Pendleton left to form Momix in 1980.
Looking back at Momix’s 35 years and beyond, he thought of Rachel Carson, who wanted at first to be an oceanographer, not a writer. She could not have written “Silent Spring,” he said, without that deep knowledge of the sea.
“Without Holstein/Friesian cows, skiers or Romantic poetry,” he said, “I might not have come up with this.”
Photo at the top: Momix combines movement and illusion. Photo courtesy of Momix