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Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State
A MOMIX dancer spins around.

MOMIX’s Pendleton finds inspiration for Botanica by digging in the dirt

by Jennifer Pencek

Nature speaks to Moses Pendleton.

In 2009, when MOMIX performed Lunar Sea at the Center for the Performing Arts, the choreographer and artistic director acknowledged that cows, in part, served as the muses for the work. When the company of dancer-illusionists returns to Eisenhower Auditorium in Botanica September 12, thanks for the inspiration goes to sunflowers and other features of the natural world.

“I’m very involved with gardening,” Pendleton says. “I’m kind of the avant gardener around here. I plant tens of thousands of sunflowers.”

It was while tending to his garden that Pendleton decided to create a piece dealing with the beauty and mystery of nature. The seed for Botanica was planted.

Growing up on a farm in Vermont and having his world-famous company based in rural Connecticut also helped Pendleton develop the ideas for Botanica, a ninety-minute dance-theatre work featuring more than twenty performance pieces following the cycle of seasons.

“I’d love to have everyone at Penn State come see the garden, but short of that I’ll try to bring as much of the garden to Penn State,” he says. “We don’t really exactly say what you should be seeing, but hopefully you are intrigued enough to make up your own mind what you think you might be seeing.”

In Botanica, MOMIX performers explore the qualities of earth, light, darkness, and air with the help of whimsical costumes, multimedia projections, custom-made props, and clever puppetry created by Michael Curry, who co-designed the masks and puppets for Broadway’s The Lion King. The performers evoke plants, animals, and natural phenomena such as snowstorms and solar flares.

MOMIX deals in illusions, props, and trippy images, and Botanica has an abundance of all three.

The New York Times

“MOMIX deals in illusions, props, and trippy images, and Botanica has an abundance of all three,” observes a New York Times critic. “… I took a fancy to the blooming marigolds, poking their green faces and shapely bare legs out of torso-size orange hair scrunchies. I liked the woman in a Vietnamese-looking hat with beaded strands that hung around her like a birdcage before spinning up like a turbine when she whirled. A triceratops skeleton coming to life is a sight any kid would deem cool.”

What makes MOMIX so magical is its inventiveness.

Amy Dupain Vashaw

“What makes MOMIX so magical is its inventiveness,” says Amy Dupain Vashaw, Center for the Performing Arts audience and program development director. “First, the performers are exceedingly good at creating an immersive environment and drawing the audience into that created world. Red skirts are just skirts until they become poppies right before your eyes. Not only do they use props in fascinating ways, but they also use just the dancers’ bodies to create shapes, structures, and creatures within the world they’ve made. It’s intellect, a sense of play, and theatrical magic rolled into one amazing experience.”

Creating that kind of experience for audiences of all ages isn’t easy. In order to conjure a work such as Botanica, Pendleton says, a creative team must work cohesively. Typically, Pendleton presents an idea, his team discusses how to develop an image, and music and choreography are applied. Improvisations are recorded, followed by editing. Sequences are then placed on cards, which are shuffled.

“We work in sections and try to bridge them together with music and lighting so they move seamlessly … ,” Pendleton explains. “Like in nature, you can’t control it too much. In other words, don’t have too many preconceptions when you go into work or you get disappointed and you may miss out on some of the true nature of a particular day that feeds you creatively.”

Audio description, which is especially helpful to patrons with sight loss, is available for Botanica at no extra charge to ticket holders.

Artistic Viewpoints, an informal moderated discussion featuring a visiting artist, is offered in Eisenhower one hour before the performance and is free for ticket holders. Artistic Viewpoints regularly fills to capacity, so seating is available on a first-arrival basis.