There’s an old refrain that goes: “I may not know art, but I know what I like.”
But big business both knows and likes art, and it likes to support it. With often opposing goals and values, business and art seem inherently mismatched, but there are some who like the way they’re learning to perform together.
“The arts are in this world to sensitize us to sights, smell, hearing — to make us more sentient beings, so we’re not just surviving but thriving,” said Moses Pendleton, choreographer and artistic director of the illusionistic dance troupe Momix, which performs Friday and Saturday at Johnson County Community College.
“And we need businesses to help do that. There should be much more sponsorship for the arts by big corporations,” he said.
Unusual among contemporary concert-dance companies because of its for-profit status, Momix has stretched further into the realms of popular and corporate culture than your typical artistic dance ensemble.
Since its founding in 1980, Momix has focused on producing astonishing stage works that combine modern dance, acrobatics, and imaginative props, costumes and lighting effects.
However, Momix dancers also have appeared in rock music videos, the feature films “F/X2” and Robert Altman’s “The Company,” television commercials for Hanes underwear and Target, and at Fiat’s 100th anniversary celebration in Torino, Italy.
For Pendleton there is no separation, but rather a symbiosis, between his company’s artistic work and its affiliations with pop culture and major corporations.
Sparked by a 2006 Las Vegas workshop production of a dance Pendleton was creating about plant life, representatives from Mercedes-Benz invited Momix to perform in the 2007 International Motor Show in Frankfurt, Germany.
The businessmen felt that the “green” sensibilities fueling Pendleton’s choreographic vision would help emphasize the automobile company’s concern for the environment, exemplified by its commitment to reducing emissions.
With financial support from Mercedes, large props were constructed for Momix’s performance in the auto show and then later used in the finished version of the troupe’s plant-life piece, “Botanica,” which premiered as a full-evening stage work in 2009.
“In my generation, business was a very bad word,” said the 65-year-old Pendleton. “But I think we need to change that concept. A lot of the new corporations coming up with ‘green’ technologies are really doing something to improve the world, and I would have no problem associating with them.
“Or if people see something in a Momix show that they want to align their product with; like BMW, for example, saw a piece we did on skis, and they saw precision, muscularity, power, beauty — all kinds of descriptions that they wanted for their new X5. I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
A co-founder of Pilobolus, a company well-known for its gymnastic use of the human body to create visual sculptures and illusions, Pendleton has a difficult time understanding why anyone would not be interested in dance.
“Our bodies have a natural need to move rhythmically, and that’s what dance is all about,” he said. “We enjoy the sensation of the body in action. We like to watch people ski, we like driving fast cars — it’s all part of our physical education.”
Pendleton credits the incorporation of dance into music videos and the recent dance-competition TV reality shows for helping to generate a greater popular consciousness of the body and how it expresses itself.
“But because they have grown up receiving their entertainment in an electronic way, the younger generation may have a problem understanding the importance of getting in your car and traveling out to see a live show,” he said.
“There’s something wonderful about watching people do things that are not just computer-generated effects. When people see Momix, real people doing amazing things, it still resonates and energizes them.”
In Overland Park, Momix will perform its latest piece, “Alchemia,” a 75-minute exploration of the human body’s connections to fire, air, water and earth. The work’s music draws heavily on selections by prolific film score composer Ennio Morricone of Italy, including music he wrote for the 1986 movie “The Mission,” starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons.
Pendleton describes the piece as “an escape from the harsh realities of the world we live in. Most people know alchemy is about turning lead into gold, and I’ve always thought about Momix as a sort of alchemical dance company. It mixes things together — dance, acrobatics, illusion, fantastic lighting effects — and changes their identity.”
He adds, “Part of the fun of Momix is to try to figure out what it is you think you’re seeing. We use all those technical elements, but it’s mainly a celebration of how the human body connects to the plant, the animal and the mineral.”
Because Momix’s aesthetic is distinguished by its mixture of dance and theatrical effects, I imagined its name — abbreviating modern dance as “Mo” — was a reflection of that concept.
But when I asked about the name’s meaning, Moses Pendleton said that while it stumps most people, he thought residents in the agricultural and cattle communities of Missouri and Kansas might get it.
Born and raised on a dairy farm in northern Vermont, where he first entered “show business” by exhibiting cows at the Caledonia County Fair, Pendleton said, “Momix is actually the name of a milk supplement I fed my veal calves.”
Lisa Jo Sagolla, Special to The Star
Friday and Saturday
Momix presents “Alchemia” on Friday and Saturday at Yardley Hall at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park. Tickets are $34-$50 through jccc.edu.