Long before he had dancers at his command, Moses Pendleton worked on his first tribute to nature. The performers weren't as light on their feet, though.
"I was born and raised on a farm in Vermont," Pendleton says. "My aspirations back then were to create a perfect Holstein-Friesian cow."
While Pendleton focused on Holsteins, his father fed the farm's veal calves a milk supplement: Momix.
Today, the name is better-known for being attached to the performing group Pendleton founded in 1980. That Momix comes to Charlotte this week as the vehicle for Pendleton's own back-to-nature movement: "Botanica."
The shorthand is to call Momix, which last came to the Charlotte area a decade ago, a dance company. But that gives only part of the picture. Pendleton's performers can move, join and intertwine so ingeniously that, to audiences' eyes, they leave their human shapes behind.
In "Botanica," costumes and props by "Lion King" designer Michael Curry help the performers metamorphose into marigolds, centaurs, rocks and less-identifiable creatures. Video projections add another layer of natural imagery. A score built from Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" and other music helps drive the evolution.
"We don't really tell stories," the director and choreographer says. But "Botanica" aims to create images that set off the viewer's imagination.
"I think there's some feeling here that there's a mystery and a sacred feeling to nature," Pendleton says.
"I'm always inspired by the earth and the elements and sunlight and water. And I spend most of my (leisure) time gardening. If I can make a living out of gardening by drawing inspiration from it and translating some of that into dance theater, then that's the way it should be."
Momix's use of bodies to play visual tricks may make it sound similar to another more-than-dance company: Pilobolus, which visited Charlotte in 2007. There's a good reason.
Pendleton was one of four Dartmouth College students who founded Pilobolus in 1971. None of them was a dancer by specialty: Pendleton was an English major who liked to spend his summers glacier-skiing on Oregon's Mount Hood. For him, Pilobolus was "a way of putting the aesthetic onto the athletic." In the 1980s, Pendleton went off on his own with Momix.
Unlike Pilobolus and many other performing groups, Momix is a for-profit company. So Pendleton and his wife, who own it, can't go out asking for donations. Instead, Momix survives financially by finding outlets wherever it can. That's why you may have seen it on television commercials for Hanes underwear and Kohler plumbing fixtures.
And that's why part of "Botanica" was born with the help of Mercedes-Benz. The carmaker wanted to play up its vehicles' green elements for a German auto show, Pendleton says. Commercial linkups such as that enabled "Botanica" to have sets and costumes that Momix probably couldn't have afforded otherwise.
Momix now has two companies on the road performing "Botanica" - one coming to Charlotte, the other in Europe. A third group is performing a potpourri of Momix works in Italy. Later in the year, "Botanica" is to premiere in Cairo. Momix performed in the Egyptian capital last year, Pendleton says, and "it was remarkable how enthusiastic they were."
"Botanica" travels well, Pendleton says. It presents no language barrier and ruffles no political sensibilities.
"This is a very positive show," Pendleton says. "It's very connected to beauty. We think that's our most political statement - to show things that are beautiful."
"This is a product of American invention and ingenuity," Pendleton adds. "We're out there selling American culture all over the world."