CU Presents’ 80th-anniversary Artist Series kicks off with a desert-inspired dance performance by MOMIX, a company famous for its astounding creativity and stunning visual tricks. The company, an Artist Series favorite, is back by popular demand with a Boulder premiere on Sunday, Oct. 2.
Founder and Artistic Director Moses Pendleton describes MOMIX’s performances as “visual physical theater.” More than just a group of dancers, the company is known to use daring movement, astounding inventiveness and clever lighting and props to achieve awe-inspiring optical illusions in its performances. This time, the internationally in-demand dancers and crew members will use their skills to bring the landscape of the Sonoran desert to life with slithering lizards and fire dancers in “Opus Cactus.”
“The piece takes the flora and fauna of that area and distills it into a MOMIX show,” Pendleton says. “You’ll see dancers mimicking cacti, tumbleweeds, strange birds … the kinds of things you might find when you take a walk in a Southwestern botanical garden.”
Pendleton was inspired to create “Opus Cactus” when he first visited Arizona, a place he found exotic after his many years on the East Coast. He’d traveled there to work with the Arizona Ballet on a new piece, and one day he ventured into the desert to find a creative catalyst in nature. He spotted a saguaro cactus and was captivated.
“It was more than just a plant,” he says. “It looked like people I knew and people I didn’t want to know. The cactus had a presence and a magic and a power that I loved.”
The cactus’ strange shape lends itself well to a dance performance, Pendleton says, because in silhouette a dancer can easily resemble a cactus. As the 10 performers in “Opus Cactus” morph easily in and out of convincing succulent shapes, music inspired by Native American songs plays and the stage is bathed in a reddish desert light, conjuring a complete Southwestern scene.
“I believe sound, costume and light all inform each other,” Pendleton says. “The word ‘mix’ in MOMIX kind of suggests we rely on a mix of all these things to present this visual, physical, sensual experience. We also use a mix of different dance styles, from acrobatics to circus techniques to modern dance.”
While all of today’s MOMIX dancers are formally trained, the company’s founder eschewed the traditional route to dance school in New York City in favor of an outdoor physical education. Pendleton grew up on a farm and spent his afternoons racing down the snowy slopes of New Hampshire and Oregon with Dartmouth’s ski team while he earned his degree in English literature.
“I was always in tune with nature, and I was lucky to be living in a particular time when people were trying other means of expression,” Pendleton says. “No one was going to business school or wanting to be a lawyer or a doctor. They wanted to go into the woods and drum and play music and dance.”
It was in the midst of that free-spirited culture of the early 1970s that the idea for a new kind of dance company was born. He and his friends together formed Pilobolus at Dartmouth, a now-famous company that recently appeared alongside Britney Spears at the MTV Video Music Awards. In 1980, inspired to do even more with optical illusions and dance, Pendleton founded MOMIX.
“A typical MOMIX performance is surreal and dreamlike,” Pendleton says. “If you’re in the audience, you should expect the unexpected and hopefully go away with a bit more lightness to your step.”