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More than 20 years after he created Momix, the dance company he named for the cattle food supplement he fed calves during his Vermont youth, choreographer Moses Pendleton is still "up and at it and going strong."
"I love the research and to work with young, vibrant people, with the music, the lights," he says. "I think we're making work that surprises people, and if the audience receives it well, that's satisfying."
He's speaking from the Momix studios in Connecticut, where he also has his home and where he and his dancers were outside earlier that day weeding and planting in the marigold garden that replaced his famous sunflower collection, which was struck by an incurable plant virus in 1999.
These are the young dancers who will perform Opus Cactus, a work that premiered in New York in 2001 and opens July 16 at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center. After nearly a week of shows in Tel Aviv, Momix will move on to additional performances in Jerusalem and Haifa.
Despite losing his sunflowers, Pendleton hasn't abandoned them, still growing the flower in some 30 varieties in pots all over his house and at local farms. The idea for Opus Cactus started, in fact, with sunflowers, though the piece would later focus on its eventual namesake, the awe-inspiring saguaro cactus of the Arizona desert.
He discovered the cactus, which can grow up to 50 feet and live for 200 years, on a trip to choreograph a dance for Ballet Arizona. He'd had sunflowers on his mind, but when he saw the saguaro, that changed. Opus Cactus was ultimately the result.
It's an anthem to the desert - "a walk in a desert botanical garden," he has said.
There's the dance's endless sky, Gila monsters, images of the wind, tumbleweed, snakes, scorpions, desert flowers and birds.
Quirky, often funny, sometimes surreal, "Opus Cactus is a series of visual impressions inspired by the magic and mystery of the desert - its flora, fauna and captivating light," Pendleton said when Momix performed the piece in Sydney in 2004. "[It] entails the idea of the human form making connections to other forms in nature; it offers a spiritual path beyond the body."
Pendleton and Momix last came to Israel in 1998, when the choreographer and his company arrived at the Israel Festival with Baseball, an energetic romp inspired by America's historical athletic pastime. Before that, he'd come with Pilobolus, where he started his career, in 1973, a week before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.
He grew up on a farm in Vermont, amazing crowds at country fairs with his trained cows and spending much of his time on skis until he broke his leg. He later studied English at Dartmouth, where he also took dance, and with Jonathan Wolken founded Pilobolus, an amalgam of dance, athletics and imagination that's still going strong more than 35 years later.
Pilobolus and Pendleton parted amicably in 1980 after the success of his first independent work, Integrale Eric Satie, which he created for the Paris Opera Ballet. Success followed success, not least in opera; Tutuguri, based on the writings of Antonin Artaud and created for Berlin's Deutche Oper in 1982, became one of his signature pieces.
More recently, 2003's Lunar Sea, a piece performed in black light, served as Pendleton's "homage to the moon" and to the cycles of nature observed in Cactus and at the center of Botanica, the new piece he's preparing for next year.
This work in progress started the same way Pendleton starts all his pieces, with the choreographer entering the studio with his dancers and videotaping them as they start to play around various themes connected to the new dance.
"It's serious play, but joyous," he says. The approach "explores the energy and natural essence of the dancers. If I can draw from the dancers their own physical essence, they'll dance more freely and naturally. I try to find the essence of their movement and incorporate that into my theme."
He doesn't require his dancers to work in his marigold garden, but says that doing so is "also a way of working on the next piece, finding their soul in the soil. I like a physical life for the dance company, working through the body to create a world of power."
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