ARTS: DANCE: Love him or loathe him

Moses Pendleton's shows sell out, while the critics scorn. Visionary or 'spoiled oyster'? Jenny Gilbert finds out
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The Independent Culture
NO DOUBT about it, Moses Pendleton II is bugged by Britain. He loves the idea of afternoon tea, he'll drink Pimms by the pint, he defends the right of the Savoy to throw him out for not wearing a tie, but the press... British critics give him the jitters. What's with these guys? Why are they so grumpy?

Pendleton's American company, Momix, has been bringing its surreal, globally successful dance- illusionist shows to Sadler's Wells since 1990. Audiences adore them and keep coming back for more, while press coverage ranges from sceptical to scathing to downright venomous. One critic found it "impossible to remain for the latter part of Passion [Pendleton's last offering] since by then Momix activities had introduced symptoms I associate with having eaten a spoiled oyster". Yet critics, too, come back for more - apparently in order to point out once again that while this company may be doing a lot of things, it's not doing dance.

Could this be a case of that peculiarly English snobbery that sees a dilettante where others see wide-ranging success? Here we have an ex-Ivy League ski champion, the grandson of a knitwear tycoon, who has choreographed Munich State Opera's Carmen, made pop videos for Julian Lennon and Prince, and runs a multi-national conglomerate fielding no less than three Momix teams around the world. The man makes money - and while Americans have no problem with that, we Brits are a mite suspicious.

Or could it be that British newspaper critics really are the sole remaining defenders of quality over rank commercialism? Momix performan-ces home in on bare breasts and bottoms with a relish not seen here since Oh, Calcutta! Last time round, naked girls bounced on huge blue balloons; and ingenious technical tricks made body parts appear to merge to create weird ink-blot creatures apparently floating in space. Lightshow meets peepshow, Dali meets Raymond's Revue. God usually gets a part, too. Some have cal-led the mix "visionary"; others see a cultural car-crash with no survivors.

Boring good taste has never cramped Pendleton's style. Anyone passing through London's Waterloo Station in the past two weeks may have been puzzled to see a large, netted cage manned by sportsmen inviting passers- by to whack a ball at a target. Top scorers get to take home a huge, gooey cake, courtesy of Entenmann's, the American bakery that's sponsoring the Sadler's Wells run while simultaneously bombarding British supermarkets with its 97 per cent no-fat pastries. Noisy video excerpts of Momix's new show, Baseball, blast across the Waterloo concourse. Would real art stoop to flogging itself like this?

Pendleton, 45 and dapper, has a well-practised defence of back- to-back soundbites. Just press the button and off he goes. "I believe in entertainment as a way to energise an audience. I believe there's a deep truth to humour, to escapism, to fantasy. I believe people should walk away with a little less gravity in their stride. We've an obligation not to project any more neurosis into a world that's already filled with it. We're an antidote to a depressed culture ..."

He is at pains to point out that each and every Momix performer is a college graduate and takes ballet class every day: they certainly consider themselves to be dancers. Moses himself, who once performed but now dreams up the shows, appears to think of himself more as a poet. At home in his Connecticut mansion he swims for two hours every day in his own lake, and regularly contemplates a private, two-acre crop of sunflowers, sown in the shape of a giant sun. These prompt both essays (in verse and prose) and photographs, which often find their way into Momix shows.

The creative process is a thing of religious observance with our Moses. "I divide each day into eight periods," he says mystically. "At the seventh period I sit down with my DAT machine and get into a dream state, a free- associating stream of subconsciousness, and spew it all out. Ideas usually come in short bursts, but if you create an open channel you can sometimes get a whole evening's ballet in one three-minute wave."

As he talks lovingly of his pocket-sized DAT equipment I realise he is recording as we speak. Is he so paranoid about London that he wants to check his own quotes? Nope. "I record every conversation I have." Every conversation? "Every conversation. I've been mechanically reproducing myself for about 20 years continuously on a daystream basis." But is the life of Moses Pendleton II so very interesting?

"It's not me I'm interested in," he says, not entirely convincingly. "It's DAT. I'm interested in what I can put on to those turning wheels and log for eternity. I'm interested in poetry, in being able eventually to speak in perfect paragraphs. If you've spent money on expensive tape you don't fill it up with garbage."

And who or what will benefit from these priceless observations? "It's all material for a project. I don't know what I'll do with it yet. It needs a team. A team of students to transcribe it all." The world holds its breath.

! Momix's new show, 'Baseball', continues at Sadler's Wells, EC1 (0171 713 6000) until next Saturday, and is reviewed on The Critics pages of this week's 'Real Life' section.

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