Momix brings a bit of the Sonoran desert to the Berkshires this weekend

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GREAT BARRINGTON — The Sonoran desert in Arizona, along the Mexican border is unlike anywhere else. The only jaguars in the United States live here, and the spring rain feeds more desert plants than any other climate on earth.

Eighteen years ago, the Ballet Arizona commissioned Moses Pendleton, artistic director of Momix company, to create a new work there. Speaking by phone from his farm and studio in Connecticut, he remembers the desert night.

"I was overwhelmed by the plants and animals there," he said. "The giant saguaro cacti."

This desert is the only place in the world where saguaro grow wild.

His Arizona commission evolved into a full-length work, and this summer, after 10 years, he is reviving it for the Berkshires. The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington has asked Momix to present "Opus Cactus" on Friday and Saturday.

It feels natural in a community that celebrates and honors the environment, said Beryl Jolly, executive director of the Mahaiwe, and she looks forward to bringing the beauty of the Southwest here in Momix's melding of movement and magic.

Momix is known for a mirage-like quality of lighting and illusion, Pendleton said, as bodies and spare objects suggest sandstone cliffs, lizards and night birds in dry country.

He finds a similar shape-shifting in the desert light. A rock in the desert at 6 in the morning can look wholly transformed from the same rock at 6 in the evening, when the light and shadow fall on it differently, and its form changes.

His dancers will form those rocks. In black mesa, bodies in silhouette form table lands and buttes, moving and holding still to music that holds for him, the sounds of desert life.

Grammy Award-winning vocalist Joanne Shenandoah sings in low and resonant voice with a depth of sadness and laughter, and Lawrence Laughing sings with her, thoughtfully, in a tenor as clear as the low strings of acoustic guitar.

The people of 17 native nations live in the Sonoran desert, and Pendleton wants to recognize them. His work draws on music from 18 composers.

But Shenandoah and Laughing have roots here. She is Oneida, and he is Kanien'kehaka (Mohawk), both peoples of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) who often live now in New York State and have lived in the northern Berkshires for hundreds of years.

As Pendleton expanded the original commission into an evening-long piece, he also brought in influences from deserts worldwide, from the Gobi, the Sahara and the peoples of Australia.

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In Arizona, he remembers researching the work, talking with archeologists and ecologists. He wanted to be out in the desert with the organ pipe cacti, he said, even more than in the studio.

He wanted to bring the ecosystem of the desert into the movement he was creating.

Dancers become saguaro and also the cactus wrens who nest in them. He created an early solo from the movements of a wren on the desert floor.

Another piece follows the spring rains, when for eight or nine days in mid-March, water comes to the desert and the wildflowers bloom in profusion. Golden-orange fiddleneck, the light purple clusters of bluedicks, yellow daiseylike brittlebrush, desert sunflower blossoms open for a few days or weeks, he said, before the heat and the dryness close them again.

Pendleton invokes those petals in bright cloth. He calls out to metamorphosis in spinning movement and the sun in wide golden fans. Dancers join together to form the body of a giant gila monster, shapes and living beings that one man or woman could not create on their own.

Rhythmic drumming moves the dance.

A fire dancer performs with the heat of real flames at his feet.

And Pendleton hopes the audience, watching, will feel the living place that underlies the illusion.

In the U.S. today, many people know the Sonoran desert for a reason beyond the land and its delicately balanced ecology. They know it as the border between the U.S. and Mexico. It has become a political focus, Pendleton acknowledged.

When he created the work, 18 years ago, he had not thought of social and political implications.

"But if you're doing anything for the public, it becomes a political act," he said.

When he wrote his thesis at Dartmouth (where he first studied dance along with science), he made that argument.

"If we don't make humans aware of the environment," he said, "why would they make legislation to protect it?"

When they feel the beauty of the land — and the necessity of beauty — then they may be moved to act, he said. They may care for this border land. They may get to know it. They may feel light, confident, joyful, to live in a world where it exists.


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