Pilobolus, Still Regenerating, at ADF with Two Premieres

Pilobolus sprang to life in 1971 from a small band of outliers, determined to make dance differently from…every other way. The collaborative group was such a success that the group has survived its original members, and generations more. No longer sprouting strangeness on the edges of the dance world, the institution of Pilobolus is instead at the center of many people’s idea of what contemporary dance is, or should be. The problem with being an institution (afloat on corporate largesse and fan expectations) is that it makes change and growth–artistic soul food–more difficult. In recent years, Pilobolus has visibly struggled with the problem of satisfying viewers and sponsors indelibly imprinted with the great dances of earlier years, while searching for ways to make new works that satisfy current times and new dancers. Their success has been mixed. They’ve brought some weak, or mediocre, or badly spliced GMO works to the stage (and this is OK, aggravating, but OK: every piece of art cannot be “the best”) but also some completely glorious new works that grow organically from the company’s sprawling underground root system.

As long as there has been a Pilobolus, the company has danced at the American Dance Festival, and the ADF has had, and continues to have, a key role, through commissioning new work, in maintaining Pilobolus’ relevance. This year, the ADF commissions include one slight and excessively silly piece, and one bold and brilliant work, Thresh|Hold, both of which had their first viewings on the DPAC stage last night.

In their effort to sustain their vitality, Pilobolus has for a number of years been working with a variety of outside choreographers from around the world. For Thresh|Hold, it was Venezuelan Javier de Frutos who collaborated with the company, and the result is the most directly emotional piece I’ve seen from them. Although less involved and less spectacular–less entertaining–than many of the recent new works, Thresh|Hold is more important, artistically: it slams, slithers and slices to the core of a universal experience–the torment of lost love.

Pilobolus premiered the important new dance Thresh|Hold at ADF, 6-18-15.  Photo: Grant Halverson.

Pilobolus premiered the important  Thresh|Hold at ADF, 6-18-15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

For one woman, four men, and a door, with a powerful score by David Van Tieghem, Thresh|Hold  goes into the memory of a woman as she struggles with the multi-formed man no longer hers. The authenticity of this nonverbal testimony is staggering. The door of memory changes location and swings both ways; the woman willingly enters and attempts to escape. She looks back, wrestling with brutal henchmen; she searches for their fallen angel. The door spins, the henchmen take her down, she writhes away, longing driving her towards acceptance, resignation and even a tender remembering of the time before love crashed and burned, and her man still flew with the angels. Although not as ravishingly lovely as last year’s premiere, On the Nature of Things, Thresh|Hold has more dancing, and it is hot. I half-expected to see the flames burst along the dancers’ paths, as I could feel them roaring in the woman’s head. And maybe more importantly, Thresh|Hold uses all the classically Pilobolean elements (power lifts, dragging, conglomerations, weight transfers, great lighting) in fresh ways.

The evening opens with the 1991 Sweet Purgatory (an ADF commission), which I’ve always taken to be about love. It’s set to Dimitri Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, op. 110a (orchestral arrangement by Rudolf Barshai), and is almost ridiculously beautiful. What with the plangent strings and the piercing brass and the balancing bodies, I was wiping tears from about 30 seconds in. Any time is a good time to see this one again, but its presentation before Thresh|Hold made this a Pilobolus program that will long resonate in memory.

Pilobolus dancing Sweet Purgatory at ADF, 6-18-15.  Photo: Grant Halverson.

Pilobolus dancing Sweet Purgatory at ADF, 6-18-15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

The two were separated by a silly and rather patience-trying tidbit, Wednesday Morning, 11:45, which itself was preceded by one of the videos Pilobolus has been irritating audiences with for several years. Honestly–we are in a live theater, we do not need self-promoting videos between the acts, like ads on TV.  Fortunately, the company did not place one of these advertorials between Thresh|Hold and the glorious and well-loved Day Two (1980, original direction by Moses Pendleton), which closed the program. There was an actual intermission, during which one could talk about the work with one’s friends.

The creation story as told in (the King James Version of) the Old Testament says that on the second day, God commanded: “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.”  Unrecorded in any history, Goddess Gaia must have said on that day: “and let all the creatures rise and play, each in its special way.” It’s all here, in Day Two, with the lovely cool lagniappe of the encore as a blessed bonus on a hot night.

Pilobolus in Day Two, at ADF 6-18-15.  Photo: Grant Halverson.

Pilobolus in Day Two, at ADF 6-18-15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

The program repeats June 19 (8 pm) and 20 (7 pm), in the Durham Peforming Arts Center. Ticket info here. Up next, beginning Sunday, June 21 in Reynolds, Heidi Latsky Dance.

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