From the Land of Steady Habits Springs An Antic Sprite, Avant-Garde Dancer Moses Pendleton

updated 07/20/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/20/1981 01:00AM

Robert Joffrey calls him "the Charlie Chaplin of the ballet world." His college classmate and cohort Phil Holland says he is "sort of a cross between Fred Astaire and Bugs Bunny." Call him whom you will, Moses Pendleton is not like anybody else, and his offbeat, almost sculptural tableaux have made him one of the hottest young dancer-choreographers around. Just as the man himself resists definition, most people have a hard time saying exactly what a Pendleton number is. His madcap dances are funny, sunny and more involved with shapes than with motion—yet so many people admire them that they are included in the repertoires of such prestigious performing groups as the Joffrey and Milan's La Scala.

Pendleton, at 32, is 10 years out of Dartmouth College, something less than a citadel of either the avant-garde or of dance. Nonetheless, Pendleton's first company was an all-Dartmouth ensemble, and included the college's former dance instructor, Alison Chase. The troupe, called Pilobolus (after a fungus that stretches toward the light and "explodes with unearthly energy," says Moses), has given form to Pendleton's best-known inventions. Although Pendleton now works mostly alone, he has kept his winning touch. "He's sort of a bebop choreographer and person," says the Joffrey's Madelyn Berdes, who dances in his Relâche. Adds Chase, whose nudie duet with Moses was a smash in Italy last year: "Moses is so aggressive, so infectious in his dreams and so extraordinary in his enthusiasm, we've coined a word for what he does. We call it 'pendle-izing.' "

Pendleton's merry style evolved, apparently willfully, out of a tragic childhood on his family's Vermont dairy farm. His grandfather had been president of the American Woolen Co., which was wiped out by the advent of synthetic fibers. Moses' father was terribly burned in a fire and killed himself when the boy was 12, and his mother died of cancer when her son was 18. "I watched cows die and I watched my father die and I watched my mother die and I watched life go on," Pendleton says. "Shocks make you what you are."

"He definitely made a choice to be positive and cheer people up," Holland says. "The humor and upbeat energy of his art come out of the misfortune of his own family." In fact, Pendleton has eerily assumed many of the distinguishing habits of his revered grandfather, whose name he adopted. He still wears the first Moses' ties, stays at the Plaza in New York because his ancestor did, and carries his grandfather's black leather briefcase everywhere he goes.

Pendleton says he chose Dartmouth because he was shooting for a spot on the Olympic Nordic ski team, whose coach was also the college's. Instead, a broken leg ended Pendleton's prospects, so he joined Chase's dance course and found a new calling. He spent one college summer in San Francisco, working as a longshoreman by day and dancing nude in Golden Gate Park at night. "Moses," Holland recalls, "was definitely beyond convention." During his senior year, Pendleton and two others cooked up Pilobolus. They wore leotards and aviator goggles and perched on one another's backs and shoulders. "We'd make interesting shapes and forms because we didn't know how to make arabesques and pirouettes," says Moses. The following year the group performed on a squash court in Vermont and later scored a smash as a fill-in act before a Frank Zappa concert. French fashion designer Pierre Cardin was so taken with their work that he backed Pilobolus for three years, putting up the money for tours of Europe and South America and a four-week SRO stand on Broadway in 1977.

The troupe is now headquartered in Washington, Conn., where Pendleton has set up house alone in a 22-room Victorian mansion he says he can't afford. "I figured if I was going to be on my own I needed the company of a giant house," he says. It looks, not surprisingly, a lot like his grandfather's. "My grandfather and I are exactly the same," he says proudly. "He was a self-made man who achieved success by selling wool. I am a self-made man who achieved success by selling dance."

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