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.


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