Pilobolus and the American Dance Festival have been closely allied for most of the company’s 43-year history. We’ve seen the company transform itself again and again (aided by ADF-trained dancers, ADF commissions, and the 2000 ADF Scripps Award), its life as an artistic body mirroring its dances of flowing change and growth. But in the last decade or so, as founding collaborators and dancers have died or moved on, the dance company named for a protean fungus has struggled at times to maintain its vitality. To open themselves to new influences and fresh possibilities for their always-astounding physical style, the company has brought in choreographers and other artists to work on new projects. Some of these have been highly successful; others have not. Pilobolus also still follows its own early model, in which the company members make the works that some or all of them will dance.
This year’s program at ADF opens with a new work by the company so successful that you could go home right after feeling satisfied. On the Nature of Things, commissioned by the ADF, had its premiere on June 26 in the Durham Performing Arts Center, danced by Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern, Eriko Jimbo and newcomer Mike Tyus. Moving slowly to the sound of a sweet searching violin (rich, questing music by Michelle diBucci and Ed Bilous), Tyus carries the red-headed Ahern onto the stage and lays him on a raised circular table, where shafts of cold white light gleam on his pale skin, making of him a marble sculpture. Tyus returns with his arms full of Eriko Jimbo, placing her carefully on top of Ahern, then stepping back. Suddenly, the work’s title is not the pretentious boast it sounded. We are in the Garden with first man and first woman and…The Other One–god, devil or both (when he bowed from the tabletop at the end, I thought I caught a few notes appropriate for a man of wealth and taste). Ahern and Jimbo circle and sniff, alternately revealing themselves to each other, and entwining in numerous complicated ways. The movement was extraordinary, even for Pilobolus, because of its condensation into such a circumscribed area, and it was gorgeously sensual. And what a pleasure–nothing but skin-toned dance belts between our eyes and their magnificent bodies.
After one of the video interludes I wish they’d quit doing (so jarring to flip from the small screen to the big live stage and back), they reprise the colorful, sassy Skyscrapers (2012), with its clever take on tango (music by OK Go). Here’s a place where the video obsession serves them well. The dancers cross a limited stage area in front of a moving life-sized projection of highly chromatic buildings and streetscapes. They flit and figure 8 in brightly-colored outfits to match their backgrounds, reaching the far side of the stage just as a new color way glides into place on the backdrop and a new dance pair cavorts before it. It is very cute and fun, but the best thing is seeing Pilobolus dancers in more or less regular clothes and shoes. Ordinarily, we see them rooting themselves to earth with their feet, so it is quite piquant to see them disguised as mere mortals in high heels and pointy toes.
After another video (unlikely explosions), they danced the 2011 ADF commission Korokoro, choreographed by the company with Takuya Muramatsu of Dairakudakan. I found this dance of strange contrasts more engrossing this time around, with some memorable classic Pilobolus rolling and rising, with bodies transforming, inverting and merging to separate and scatter–all in an apocalyptic environment or perhaps on another planet. There is a great moment when the dancers look like they’ve been caught in the Star Trek Transporter, half-way dematerialized, thanks to the smart lighting and video projections by Neil Peter Jampolis and John Kane.
The second new, ADF-commisioned work of the evening was created by the company along with Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret, who are both writers. The Inconsistent Pedaler did not come alive for me as a dance, or even dance theatre. It was more like a sit-com that didn’t really work. The storyline involves a birthday party, clearly in a facility, for a 99-year-old man. Neither dark enough nor funny enough, it was merely depressing. Although there were some clever aspects, such as the schtick with the bicycle which posits that movement drives music, just as it drives human life, mostly the piece was just a mess, and the final image could hardly have been any more hackneyed.
The evening ends with another well-known but always welcome work, Megawatt. This was the best performance of it I’ve seen, because Eriko Jimbo was totally blowing all circuits as she flipped all over the stage like a live wire. Despite this high-energy dance coming at the end of a demanding program, all the dancers were hot–and Jimbo was sizzling.
Pilobolus will return to the DPAC June 27 and 28 at 8 pm. Earplugs recommended for the final work.
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Having seen virtually everything Pilobolus has presented at ADF for the last 14 years, I was delighted that 2014 has brought a return to the company’s roots and artistic strengths. Applying gymnastic muscularity and a unique choreographic language in the service of art is the company’s legendary reputation – whether it be amusingly clever, ridiculously silly, disturbingly dark, or simply beautiful to watch.
Recent collaborations with puppeteers and magicians have been disappointing, and the several gimmicky attempts at forcing technology (glass tables with cameras, toy flying drones, etc.) into their dances have been unfortunate.
I, too, thought “the Inconsistent Pedaler” fell short of what I expect from Pilobolus, but found the new “The Nature of Things” compellingly beautiful. Revisiting the earlier works was also rewarding, though on second viewing I believe that “Korokoro” would benefit from a little condensation. The short bright “Skyscrapers” is charming with its rich hues (and very reminiscent of Pedro Almodovar’s colorful films.) The exuberant power of “Megawatt” makes for a fine finale. The short films presented during the “rest and redecorating breaks” are quirky, but preferable to audience chatter or multiple intermissions.
“The Nature of Things” suggests that strong imaginative creativity still abides within Pilobolus itself, and that the company’s best collaborators are still to be found by looking in the mirror.