Baseball always has piqued the imagination of choreographer Moses Pendleton. Even growing up on a dairy farm in Vermont, he would throw a tennis ball hard against the barn, pitching along with the game on the radio.
So when the San Francisco Giants called, you can bet that Pendleton's dance company, Momix, suited up for practice. The result was "Bat Habits," a sort of spring training ballet, which Momix performed to inaugurate the performing arts center in Scottsdale, Ariz., the Giant's winter home.
The next year, 1994, while the real game was shut down for a months-long strike, Pendleton expanded "Bat Habits" into a 17-part, two-hour dance concert. "Baseball," which gets its West Coast premiere at the Alex Theatre on Friday, tells the story of the game from the time early man first hit a rock with a tree branch.
The program reflects Pendleton's interest in the game, which intensified after taking up the project. "It's somewhat surreal," he said. "It's not really a game we're portraying, but it uses those icons and sounds, so even if you don't like baseball, you might enjoy it. And even if you don't like Momix, you might like it--if you like baseball."
Momix has always had an athletic bent. Pendleton himself was Vermont's cross-country skiing champion and Olympic hopeful, until he broke a leg. As part of his rehabilitation, he took a modern dance class at Dartmouth College and choreographed his first work with two other athletes, calling it "Pilobolus." After graduating in 1971, he and four men founded Pilobolus Dance Theater, which made a tremendous splash in the 1970s with its collective muscle power and acrobatic style.
In 1980, Pendleton choreographed the closing ceremonies for the Olympics at Lake Placid and performed a solo there titled "Momix." He resurrected the name--which is a milk supplement fed to veal calves--a few years later when he started a duo. It was, at first, an offshoot of Pilobolus, but grew into an independent company.
The two companies continue to have certain aspects in common, including a striking surrealism and sense of humor in their performances. Pilobolus, however, rarely used music, never wore shoes and shunned props, relying on bodies to create interesting shapes.
"Pilobolus used bodies as props," Pendleton explained. "Momix uses props as bodies."
Momix is, in fact, known for its use of props, which have ranged from giant skis to moving gyroscopes. The company also integrates theatrical lighting and music. Dance, it seems, is too small a word to encompass its performances.
"We don't say the d-word," said Momix member Cynthia Quinn, only half-joking.
Quinn, who is married to Pendleton, was also a Pilobolus dancer. Being in Pilobolus--which had four men and two women--was at times overwhelming for the women. "The work was so intimate," Quinn said. "The women were always on top of a man, being lifted, held, wrapped around them. It was almost like you were sleeping with them."
Momix gives all the dancers a little more space. Quinn does more solo work, including "The Wind-Up" in "Baseball." Here, too, she was concerned with being overwhelmed by the masculine side of the subject matter. So instead of putting on a team uniform, she dons a black velvet dress. With an oversized Styrofoam baseball attached to her hand, she performs a six-minute routine that invokes a pitcher's contortions. At the same time, the dress makes her resemble a sorceress with a crystal baseball.
The dance program encompasses the philosophical and the kitschy. The opening equates the beginning of baseball with Genesis. A later "commercial" includes dancing beer cans. "The Umpire Strikes Back" has the official openly taking bribes.
Even in Europe, where they know about as much about our national pastime as we know about cricket, "Baseball" was a big hit. The company nearly sold out a two-week engagement in Rome in a 1,200-seat theater.
But this success was no help, however, when Pendleton had to face former Cleveland Indian's slugger Albert Belle. Momix had performed in Toronto before a Blue Jays game, and the organization asked him to throw the first pitch.
"I thought I'd just lean back and throw some heat," he said. "I threw something that was 14 feet away from the plate and Albert Belle. It looked like I was throwing at the dugout."
Pendleton may have made baseball into a show, but that doesn't mean he can play baseball in the show.
Momix, at the Alex Theater, 216. N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Friday at 8 p.m. $28-$28. (800) 233-3123.