ADF: Pilobolus–with Banjos

Whether you’ve never seen the ever-regenerating dance troupe Pilobolus, or you’ve seen them so many times that you think you’re done–this is a very good year to watch the company at the American Dance Festival. The Pils and ADF go back together to the beginning of time (at least, to the beginning of Pilobolus), and it is easy to feel jaded about their annual re-appearance in the ADF summer season. And like any long-lived entity, Pilobolus has had times when it was less brilliant–but this is not one of them. The current group of dancers has that special magic together, and each dancer exhibits the full splendor of the Pilobolus style. Yes, it is the most expensive ticket of the season, but you will absolutely get your money’s worth. The program length was listed as 105 minutes–but that was before they added in a new work, and it does not include the onstage pre-show warm-ups. The show presented June 30th in DPAC repeats July 1 at 7 p.m.

Friday night saw the world premiere of yet another ADF-commissioned piece, Echo in the Valley, for which Pilobolus collaborated with the world’s greatest banjo duo, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. This is a very dark work for the company, and unusually narrative, with scenes of struggle and death in Appalachian coal mining country (the bad old days, dark as a dungeon way down in the mine). The staging is fantastic, with piercing lighting by Thom Weaver, and clogging boards set up with amplification for both Washburn (she and Fleck play on stage) and the dancers. Who are wearing shoes! When Heather Jeane Favretto stepped up and began clogging, I nearly fell out of my seat. Talk about trying something new! Holy clogging Piloboleans! (And check out Washburn’s double rhythm when she dances at the microphone.) The music is great–a mix of atmospheric riffs and bursts, with some of the old songs, which Washburn burns into the listener with her amazing voice, ranging from pure high lonesome to scorching gravel in the space of a phrase. Also burned into memory is a long scene in which the giant dancer Jacob Michael Warren looms in frozen mourning over his dead beloved, the violence in his soul contained until his friend tries to draw him away. The friend takes a beating, but really, he has given the only gift of love that can provide solace to the mourning miner–some place to release his rage. Echo in the Valley is profoundly moving.

The program opens with the very beautiful 2014 work On the Nature of Things (ADF co-commission). Two men, one woman and a raised circular stand–and Vivaldi. Three magnificent human bodies doing graceful, impossible things in as little clothing as the law allows. The performance on the 30th was phenomenal, with Antoine Banks-Sullivan, Nathaniel Buchsbaum and Krystal Butler. Ms. Butler is ALL THAT.

The troupe added into the program a new work called Branches, in which they appear as a flock of birds, with scenes from dawn to sunset. It was completely delightful and made an excellent bridge between On the Nature of Things and Echo in the Valley. I expect this piece will become a program regular, it is just so much fun to watch people become birds. And speaking as a person who spends a lot of time watching birds being birds, I can say that Pilobolus gets the behaviors just right.

After intermission comes the clever [esc], which is really a magic act. Once before was more than enough of this piece for me–I really have a hard time with a woman being bound with duct tape and a plastic bag taped over her head. Even knowing she’s going to escape, it makes me sick. The other tricks are not upsetting, but still, once you’ve seen them, you’ve seen them.

However, once is not enough for the 2007 piece Rushes, one of the early collaborations by Pilobolus with makers outside the company, in this case, Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak. It involves a dozen small white chairs, a white floor circle, six dancers and a suitcase, and a harmonious mix of the most unlikely musical bedfellows. Rushes evokes so many things, most of which have to do with journeying–and seeking and hiding and finding; escaping and rescuing and surviving. I had remembered it quite well, but it burst upon me afresh with this spectacular cast, who carry out their amazing feats of balance, strength, endurance and grace with gorgeous vitality, imbuing the resolutely non-verbal composition with visual and kinetic clarity.


Pilobolus performing Rushes at ADF, 6/30/17, in the DPAC. The mystical lighting is by Yoann Tivoli. Photo: Ben McKeown.


Seamless Join: JazzGrass with Bela Fleck and The Marcus Roberts Trio

Bela Fleck, photo courtesy Duke Performances.

Duke Performances brought a jazz concert to a right-sized community venue again on November 8, when the  Carolina Theatre hosted the fabulous quartet of  Bela Fleck and The Marcus Roberts Trio. The main floor was full, and the crowd flowed up into the second balcony to hear banjo master Fleck jamming a delicious, lyrical patois of jazzgrass with pianist Roberts, bassist Rodney Jordan, and percussionist Jason Marsalis.

The jazz band members and Fleck encountered each other first at the Savannah Music Festival. After a jam session, they decided to try to make some music together–to try for a real, collaborative mixing from the wells of jazz and bluegrass. The quartet’s first performance together at the 2011 Savannah Music Festival re-proved the theory that not much separates great improvisatory musicians.

The show at the Carolina was very much like the first one, crackling with joyous energy. Much of the unbroken (nearly 2 hour!) set was electrifying, as the musicians romped through classics and new compositions completely in sync with each other. Roberts has great rapidity and clarity, and his fingers know all the jazz piano greats of the 20th century. His emotional range includes the silvery, spacious delicacy of Teddy Wilson, and the blistering stride of Errol Garner. Sometimes Fleck’s banjo sounded like a harpsichord chattering to a pianoforte. Sometimes it rang out like a horn. Other times, it had the sound of a plucked jazz guitar (I thought of Joe Pass). A duet between banjo and bass fluttered like delicate lace in a breeze. Whether all four instruments were active, one only, or any of the possible combinations were at play, the musicians were deeply attentive to each other, which gave music already cheerful a charge of bubbling gaiety.

Marcus Roberts, photo Duke Performances.

One goes to a concert not just to hear the music, but to see its makers do their magic. This one presented an unusual sight. Pianist Roberts is blind (he studied music at Ray Charles’ alma mater), and he was seated with his back to the drummer and bassist (and to me, in house left), who would sometimes have been able to see his hands. Fleck sat on a raised chair close to the left end of the piano, but even he had to read the subtle cues in Robert’s body language along with the cues within the music, in addition to those flashing digits. It was amazing to observe. More fun to watch, however, was the elegant drumming by the long, lean, handsomely suited Jason Marsalis. Even while keeping multiple complex rhythms going simultaneously, he makes textures as much as beats. He’s very controlled, very nuanced—and sometimes very mischievous. He and bassist Jordan got into an escalating challenge of interrupted rhythm patterns during their riff together, until it resolved into laughter and all the players sweeping back in, across the entirely imaginary divide between virtuoso musicians of whatever stripe.


Interviews with Roberts and Fleck on DP’s blog, The Thread.

Stylishly made and informative video made in support of the 2012 recording, Across the Imaginary Divide.

Listen here to a few cuts of Across the Imaginary Divide.

This amateur video gives a look at Marsalis’ elegant drumming.

Hour-long recording from the quartet’s first performance together at the 2011 Savannah Music Festival. There’s a little announcer talk at the top, but then it commences to SWING. Stay with it through the announcer break at 35 minutes–first up is a sparkling piano/banjo duet on “Maple Leaf Rag.”

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