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Imagination's circus 

by Ann M. Colford


Dreams are fertile fields for artists. In dreams, bodies are not limited by gravity. The familiar cuddles with the bizarre, and absurdity makes perfect sense. Bringing dream images to life on the dance stage is the territory of Momix, a playful and inventive dance company based in the bucolic Litchfield Hills of northwestern Connecticut. The group brings its program, Momix In Orbit, to the Beasley Coliseum in Pullman this Sunday as part of the Festival Dance Great Performances Series.


As much theater as dance, Momix defies categorization. Imagine a whole troupe of dancers circling in midair at the ends of long poles while one woman sits inside a metal bowl at the center of the action. Or a single dancer whirling around the stage within a giant hula-hoop, a pas de deux for man and table, or five dancers merging into one creature with five heads and ten arms and legs. These are just a few of the ideas to spring from the creative minds and athletic bodies of Momix. The group's founder and director, Moses Pendleton, relies on a combination of the inner world of the unconscious and the physical natural world for his inspiration.


"We draw on dreams and fantasies," he explains, "but with very much of a visual artist's sense. We see the body as very sculptural." In keeping with the surreal imagery, Pendleton likes his dancers to view the world with a playful eye. "Ideas can happen at any time," he says. "You never know when one is going to hit. The ideas come from sounds and pictures and things you see while walking down the street. You still have to maintain that child's spirit and try to make your work your play."


The group's aesthetic has its roots in the surrealist sensibilities present in some parts of the art world in the early 20th century, like the works of painter Salvador Dali, according to Pendleton. Illusion, drama, and theatrical lighting play strong roles in the company's programs as well. "We use lighting to increase the sense of movement," he says. "The shadow images move even though the dancer is standing still." Unlike some other modern dance companies, Momix often uses slow or minimal movements enhanced by props to express feelings and ideas. "We have a term here called 'press,' where you energize your body as a slow-moving sculpture," Pendleton explains. Adding a prop extends the range of motion of the dancers and extends the body into space, he points out. "It's not just jumping around and moving fast. We're not just concerned with steps. We adhere to the principle of dance as a musical experience." The music in a Momix performance can range from Vivaldi to Peter Gabriel, with many stops in between.


Pendleton founded Momix in 1980 after choreographing the closing ceremonies for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, taking the name from a solo piece that he performed at the Games. Nine years earlier, as a Dartmouth undergraduate, he co-founded Pilobolus, one of the first groups to mine the athletic and acrobatic side of modern dance. Although now in a position of prominence in the world of contemporary dance, Pendleton did not take the classical route to a dance career. Born and raised on a dairy farm in Vermont, he grew up exhibiting cattle at the county fair and training to be a cross-country ski racer. He ended up in dance quite by accident -- literally. After breaking his leg in a skiing accident, he was advised to take a dance class to help his recuperation and soon found himself spending more time in the studio than on the slopes.


Now in its 20th season, Momix travels extensively, performing often in Italy and France. The group completed a three-week run at New York City's Joyce Theater in February and most recently performed a new work in honor of the start of baseball season. "It's a full evening work on the theme of baseball," Pendleton says. "We're doing it at the theater across from Shea Stadium in New York." Several more American dates are planned through the spring, and then the group heads back to Europe later this summer.


For Sunday's program, seven Momix dancers will make the journey to Pullman, along with their usual array of props. The Momix In Orbit program is a collection of favorite pieces from the group's repertory, including Sputnik, the work that sends the entire company into orbit at the end. Other pieces feature solo performers or duos working with a variety of props, including a 20-foot puppet. Drawing upon his roots, Pendleton has created another piece that puts the dancers on skis, moving them off the vertical line that's emphasized by classical ballet dancers. Despite the lack of toe shoes, he says to expect a lightness of both image and spirit when Momix takes the stage.





Momix performs at the Beasley Performing Arts Coliseum at WSU on Sunday, April 8 at 7 p.m. Tickets: $18-$28; $12-$28, students; $10-$28, children. Call: 325-SEAT.

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