When you go to see choreography by Moses Pendleton, artistic director and founder of Momix, you expect to be astonished.
His full-length piece Botanica, which received its Philadelphia premiere in a performance by Momix on Thursday night at the Annenberg Center, has astonishment to spare.
As its name implies, this work was inspired by nature; it consists of four sections, roughly corresponding to the seasons. Raised on a Vermont dairy farm, Pendleton has always been deeply interested in animals, plants, insects, and weather. All these, and much more, find their way into Botanica.
Using his signature brand of theatrical magic, Pendleton, who received an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from the University of the Arts on Thursday, creates an entire, eccentric world.
At various points during this two-hour production, we see - or think we see - rivers rushing across the stage, fireflies illuminating the night sky, human-sized hornets pirouetting to Indian music, falling snow, and marigolds that double as haute-couture dresses.
Pendleton, who founded Momix in 1981, draws on his decades of experience as a dancer-choreographer, lighting/costume/video-projection designer, and maker of intricate musical "collages" to construct visual puns that can be funny - and surreal.
It's not enough for Pendleton to create a rideable triceratops. He also gives it a complex personality; it purrs like a housecat when its nose is stroked, then turns around and devours its rider. At one point Pendleton throws in a scene about centaurs. Centaurs? In a post-performance chat, the choreographer admitted that these characters have no logical reason to be there. But they're great fun.
Pendleton's work isn't only about gasp-inducing "effects" that leave you wondering how his 10 impeccably rehearsed dancers (who are also gymnasts, contortionists, and masters of physical comedy) managed to do whatever they just did. Much of Botanica is both lyrical and erotic, like the haunting solo performed by a woman in flesh-colored tights and top, reclining on a raked, mirrored platform that doubles every carefully controlled undulation of her torso.
Although billed as a single work, Botanica often feels like a series of separate vignettes, the format for which Momix is best known. But this doesn't seem important, since the individual segments are so fascinating.