MOMIX Artistic Director Moses Pendleton on Letting Costumes Lead the Choreography
For most dancers, the costumes act as the finishing touch. At MOMIX, however, the costumes are just the starting point. In order for the company of dancer-illusionists to become marigolds or stars onstage, founder and artistic director Moses Pendleton sets his movement to the costumes (designed by Phoebe Katzin), letting the sometimes-unconventional designs shape the finished piece.
So, what's it like working on a piece like Paper Trails, where the dancers are costumed in paper that later transforms into a 12-foot dress? We spoke with Pendleton and MOMIX dance captain Sarah Nachbauer to learn all of the details of how they get their concepts from the studio to the stage—and all of the costume mishaps in between.
Coming Up With A Concept
Jennifer Chicheportiche in "Paper Trails." Screenshot via MOMIX.
Because the company's pieces are so visual, Pendleton stresses that inspiration can come from almost anywhere—such as his sunflower garden or walks through the woods in Connecticut. Ideas often evolve into something totally different from what he first imagines. "We don't know exactly what something will turn into until we bring in an idea and play with it in the studio," Pendleton says. "For example, Marigolds is a piece in which we saw orange tutus, that when stacked on top of one another, created this magical illusion of transforming the dancer into a flower," he explains. "Our studio is like a creative playground; we give the dancers freedom to experiment," he says.
A Creative Process Based On Collaboration
Amanda Hulen in "Aqua Flora." Photo by Charles Azzopardi.
Determining the right movements to execute the desired shapes and effects means practicing in costumes from the beginning. "The more comfortable you can become with the costume, the less you're thinking about it onstage and the more you can just let your character lead the performance," Nachbauer says. "This takes hours of working in the costume while studying each movement you do to see how it affects the image as a whole."
Overcoming "Disaster" Moments
Sarah Nachbauer in "Echoes of Narcissus." Photo by Charles Azzopardi.
"Everything is trial and error," Pendleton says. Nachbauer agrees, adding that number of costume changes alone can be challenging. "In our current show MOMIX, I personally have eight costume changes with as little as 15 seconds to change into them," she says.
Once changed and onstage, some costumes prove to be more difficult than others. "We have a piece that is UV light dependent, which means that even though you are fully costumed, the audience can only see certain parts of the body," Nachbauer explains. "This kind of costume has to fit perfectly and requires us to concentrate on a specific body part while using our entire body to make the illusion. In another piece, we costume ourselves in paper onto which images are projected. The difficulty there is that paper is obviously fragile and can rip at any time." No matter how much rehearsal they have, "there are certainly times when your costume breaks or fails, but you do your best to keep going and try to have a laugh about it after the show," she says.
What happens during a performance is the product of the painstaking process of realizing an artistic vision. Whether held beforehand, afterward, offsite or online, audience discussions tend not to be so preordained, easily thrown off track without a skilled moderator at the helm.
"I'm someone who dreaded talkbacks and Q&As," admits Bill Bragin, former director of public programming at Lincoln Center. "While I was in New York, a lot of the time it was just audience members trying to show off how smart they were."
These events present a pile of difficult questions: How much do you reveal about a piece before it's shown? How can a conversation designed to hit key points feel casual and spontaneous? How do you cater to the needs of diverse attendees, from novice dancegoers to lifelong fans to scholars and critics? And how do you avoid smothering dance with language, flattening all its complexity?
If you think becoming a trainee or apprentice is the only path to gaining experience in a dance company environment, think again.
The University of Arizona, located in the heart of Tucson, acclimates dancers to the pace and rigor of company life while offering all the academic opportunities of a globally-ranked university. If you're looking to get a head-start on your professional dance career—or to just have a college experience that balances company-level training and repertory with rigorous academics—the University of Arizona's undergraduate and graduate programs have myriad opportunites to offer:
Yes, we realize it's only August. But we can't help but to already be musing about all the incredible dance happenings of 2019.
We're getting ready for our annual Readers' Choice feature, and we want to hear from you about the shows you can't stop thinking about, the dance videos that blew your mind and the artists you discovered this year who everyone should know about.
I dance to encourage others. The longer I dance, the more I see that much of my real work is to speak life-giving words to my fellow artists. This is a multidimensionally grueling profession. I count it a privilege to remind my colleagues of how they are bringing beauty into the world through their craft. I recently noticed significant artistic growth in a fellow dancer, and when I verbalized what I saw, he beamed. The impact of positive feedback is deeper than we realize.