MOMIX, Pictures at an Exhibition, and the Visualization of Music - Detroit Opera

MOMIX, Pictures at an Exhibition, and the Visualization of Music

By Jon Teeuwissen, MOT Artistic Advisor for Dance

Music is integral to dance. Choreography is often referred to as the visualization of music. In 1991, Moses Pendleton, founder and artistic director of MOMIX, conceived, choreographed, and directed a televised dance film - Pictures at an Exhibition - which won the International Emmy for Best Performing Arts Special. Pendleton was inspired by the 1874 Modest Mussorgsky composition of the same name, which was inspired by the 1873 memorial exhibition of paintings and drawings of his close friend Viktor Hartmann.

At its best, experiencing the performing arts can literally change someone’s life. I am writing about Pictures at an Exhibition, because it is a piece that affected me in a profound way the first time I heard it. And I am equally drawn to the music as a solo piano piece (as originally composed), or as scored for orchestra. Every time I hear Pictures at an Exhibition, I discover something new. I heard the music differently once I experienced the piece visually, thanks to Pendleton, whom I have known personally for nearly three decades. All this to say, Pictures at an Exhibition resonates with me in a very intimate way.

Mussorgsky’s music depicts his tour of the Hartmann memorial exhibition. Each of the 10 sections of the suite serve as a musical illustration of one of Hartmann’s pictures. Although rapidly composed in 1874 within one month, Pictures at an Exhibition was not published until 1886, five years after the composer’s death. And it was unfortunately not a completely accurate representation, with some sections omitted. It was not until 1931 – the 50th anniversary of Mussorgsky’s passing – that Pictures at an Exhibition was published in a scholarly edition, in agreement with Mussorgsky’s manuscript.

The exact drawings and watercolors of Hartmann upon which Mussorgsky based his musical material will never be substantiated, as most of the pictures from the memorial exhibition are lost. However, for some musical insights, the influential critic Vladimir Stasov (who introduced Mussorgsky and Hartmann) shared the following brief descriptions about the ten sections of Pictures at an Exhibition:

      • The Gnome: “A sketch depicting a little gnome, clumsily running with crooked legs”
      • The Old Castle: “A medieval castle before which a troubadour sings a song”
      • Children’s Quarrel after Games: “An Avenue in the garden of the Tuileries, with a swarm of children and nurses”
      • Cattle: “A Polish cart on enormous wheels, drawn by oxen”
      • Ballet of Unhatched Chicks: “Hartmann’s design for the décor of a picturesque scene in the ballet Trilby
      • Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuye: “Two Polish Jews, one rich and one poor”
      • Limoges.The Market (The Great News): “French women quarreling in the market”
      • Catacombs (Roman Tomb): “Hartmann represented himself examining the Paris catacombs by the light of a lantern”
      • The Hut on Hen’s Legs Baba Yaga: “Hartmann’s drawing depicted a clock in the form of Baba Gaga’s hut on fowl’s legs”
      • The Bogatyr Gates (In the Capital in Kiev): “Hartmann’s sketch was his design for city gates at Kiev in the ancient Russian massive style with a cupola shaped like a Slavonic helmet”

The first two movements of the suite - one grand, one grotesque - find mirrored counterparts, and apotheosis, at the end. The suite traces a journey that begins at an art exhibition, but the line between observer and observed vanishes at the Catacombs when the journey takes on a different character.

Pictures at an Exhibition is one of the most popular pieces ever written, most often performed using Maurice Ravel’s 1922 version for full symphony orchestra, which represents “a virtuoso effort by a master colorist.” But many conductors have decided to create their own compilations of different orchestrations by different orchestrators.

Throughout his career, Mussorgsky was criticized for not being able to orchestrate, and other composers attempted to “fix” his pieces. But for years now, scholars and artists alike have realized that Mussorgsky knew exactly what he was doing.

When Pendleton decided to create a dance version of Pictures at an Exhibition for a television special, he re-imagined the piece as “tableaux vivants” with each “picture” or movement of the composition actually coming to life. Pendleton cast himself as the main character, walking through a gallery of paintings, occasionally greeting the conductor Charles Dutoit along the journey. With each movement of music, Pendleton would literally step into the painting it represented, and the piece would become animated. The resulting television special featured Pendleton and his dance company MOMIX, as well as Dutoit and his Montreal Symphony.

Founded by Pendleton in 1980, MOMIX is a Connecticut-based dance company known internationally for presenting works of astounding inventiveness and physical beauty. A true Renaissance man, Pendleton himself is extremely innovative, intelligent, inquisitive and curious by nature. He also possesses a frenetic energy – one might describe him as "The Robin Williams of Dance."

Billed as an ensemble of dancer-illusionists, MOMIX productions, directed by Pendleton, are carefully crafted to assimilate a multitude of various elements. Pendleton “combines muscularly sculpted dancers with unique costumes and props, sets them amongst artfully created lighting and light effervescent, and finally completes everything with a personally selected diverse musical score.” In addition to creating for dance companies, Pendleton is a published photographer, which brings us back to Pictures at an Exhibition.

One of my “dance fantasies” is that one day Pendleton will re-stage Pictures at an Exhibition, which was created and filmed for television, for the theater. In the meantime, we have this wonderful version which you can view in its entirety via the link below. But before you watch, I’d like to share with you a few comments about my favorite three sections of the dance film:

Section II: The Old Castle 

This old Victorian house is actually the home of Pendleton and his wife, Cynthia Quinn (also associate artistic director of MOMIX). Quinn is the featured soloist in this dance, the “girl in the window with the long, exaggerated arms,” who eventually floats, like a piece of material, to the ground. Ethereal and mysterious. 

Section IV: Cattle 

I love this section musically; I love that the cattle are moving in time with the music as they are pulling a cart of dancers (warning: this section includes brief nudity), and I love the straight-ahead looking into the camera by the cattle as they turn the corner. Surreal and total fun.

Section X: The Great Gate of Kiev 

The grand finale, I love everything about this section: the ringing of the giant bells by Pendleton; the incorporation of Charles Dutoit conducting the orchestra and particularly the symmetry of the forms the dancers make with the flexible giant bands that move in and out to the rhythm of the music. Grand and exhilarating! 

I hope you enjoy MOMIX and the Montreal Symphony in the dance film of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition: Moses Pendleton’s innovative visualization of one of classical music’s masterpieces. Once you see the music, you will never hear the score the same way again.

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