Moses Pendleton created dances about baseball, the desert, and shadows cast by moonlight.
How does the world-famous 74-year-old choreographer come up with ideas for such different works?
The key is simple, he explained during a recent telephone interview from his home in rural Connecticut.
“I take an ecological, psychological approach to creativity,” he said. “Put yourself in an interesting environment of light and cool air and beautiful shapes. And just wait. Something will come.”
“If you’re good at dreaming, that’s the whole point,” he added. “How can you, how can you go into the rabbit hole of your own subconscious and dig in there? It’s endless in terms of creative possibilities, but you have to know how to open that door.
A few years ago, this rabbit hole led Pendleton to Lewis Carroll’s famous magical world known as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
On Oct. 25, you can delve into Pendleton’s subconscious when his dance company, MOMIX, performs “Alice” at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Center for the Fine Arts.
MOMIX’s Alice is not a strict interpretation of Carroll’s classic children’s novel. But Walt Disney’s book and film version have fascinated Pendleton since he saw the 1951 cartoon on television growing up on a dairy farm in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.
“I think I memorized the Disney show,” Pendleton said. “I saw it many times when I was young.”
What drew Pendleton to “Alice” remains true decades later and can easily be applied to MOMIX as a whole.
Both “Alice” and MOMIX combine elements of the “surreal, the nonsensical,” Pendleton explained.
“MOMIX took the improv and created fast-moving props, lights and various illusions to create an impression of ‘Alice,'” Pendleton said.
He added that he did not create “Alice” himself. “It’s a collaborative process,” Pendleton said. “As a director, I come in and present the theme, the idea to the company, and then we start improvising, playing and having fun, and after a while we move on. And then everything is months and months, we edit and record on video. It’s kind of an alchemical process of throwing anything into the Alice-themed MOMIX retort and see what we come up with.’
“The show is musically driven and fun, funny and great,” added Pendleton. “It’s a great night out. I really enjoy watching it.”
Pendleton took an unconventional, Alice-like path into the world of dance. Raised in Vermont, Pendleton was a state cross-country champion. This led him to attend Dartmouth College in nearby New Hampshire.
While at Dartmouth, Pendleton broke his leg. Soon after recovering, he took a dance class at Dartmouth in 1971 taught by Alison Becker Chase. A few months later, Pendleton, Chase and several other students in the dance class gave their first performance at Smith College in Northampton.
“We opened for Frank Zappa,” Pendleton said. “He was with Flo & Eddie from The Turtles at the time… We went out and opened for him. And there were 3,000 screaming Smith girls on their feet chanting. It was an amazing concert. And then in the dressing room, Zappa came in and talked to us and said, “Guys, the only word I can have for this is The Theater of The Very Far Out. And would you like to come to Kansas City the next day? because it was on a national tour? So the band said, “Mr. Zappa, we really appreciated the opportunity to perform with your group, but we have math exams the next day. We had to get back to Dartmouth. But that was really the seed. When we got up there (to Dartmouth), we all sat down and said, “Do you realize what happened?” And that really launched our career. We were really inspired by that.”
That performance led to the creation of Pilobolus, who gave their second dance performance a few months later in 1972 at Hampshire College in Amherst, Pendleton explained.
“It was a big wheel of cheese we called it,” Pendleton said, referring to the shape of the theater at Hampshire College. “It was a round log structure where we made some of our improvements even before we had a legal company.”
Pilobolus eventually became one of the most inventive, popular modern dance companies in the world. Pendleton remained with Pilobolus, which was still active, until he formed MOMIX in 1980.
Recently, Pendleton has been working on several new dance pieces, a shorter one that premiered earlier this month in Genoa, Italy, and a longer, evening piece that Pendleton is working on with the rest of MOMIX.
“I’m not quite sure what it is yet, but we should be premiering it later in the year,” Pendleton said.
If the new work is anything like other MOMIX works, audiences can expect the unexpected mixed with something playful, athletic and surreal.
“MOMIX is a kind of physical visual theater, it’s not just a modern dance company,” Pendleton said. “There’s an idea of taking props, extending the body, the human body into the magical, alchemical, mystical, imaginary world that we’re trying to bring to life.”
In addition to being a choreographer, Pendleton is also an avid photographer who has exhibited his work in Italy and the United States.
And every day he either swims in a cold mountain lake, rides his bike in the morning or climbs a hill in Connecticut just before sunset. These daily physical routines help Pendleton keep “that door open” to creative possibilities, he explained.
“It helps me sharpen my third eye so I can see clearly what most people find invisible,” Pendleton said.
MOMIX performs “Alice” at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Center for the Fine Arts on October 25 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets or more information, visit UMass Fine Arts website.