Shadows for a Dark Time: Pilobolus Opens ADF 2016

No one could have known, when planning this season’s American Dance Festival schedule, that when the summer of ’16 rolled around, we’d all be living a nightmare struggle, toting our little bundles of hope through hoop after hoop of danger and depravity, looking for love, looking for home, for self and for safety. But these artists, you know they run ahead of the curve. So with Pilobolus and Shadowland.


The dream begins in SHADOWLAND, the evening-length piece by Pilobolus that opened ADF 2016. At the DPAC through 6/18.  Photo: Grant Halverson.

The company has toured this work in Europe, but has just begun presenting it in the US, with a performance in New York in November, 2015. It’s presentation on ADF’s opening night reinforced the festival’s crucial role in disseminating new work by contemporary dance artists, and it highlighted the special relationship between Pilobolus and the ADF, which has presented the group’s work since its inception. Currently, 11 members of the troupe have studied in the ADF School or have worked with the festival in some capacity. The group comes to Durham every year, which gives audiences here an almost unequaled opportunity to follow its continual artistic change. (The dancer Eiko has pointed out that outside of New York, her biggest, longest-term audience is in Durham.)


“We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Pilobolus dances a dark tempest in SHADOWLAND, as ADF opens its 2016 season. Photo: Grant Halverson.

With Shadowland, Pilobolus has taken visual ideas we have seen earlier, in rawer states, to confidently developed presentation. For 8 or 10 years, they’ve been more and more interested in creating flows of imagery independent of those they make with their bodies, and with a cinematic unreeling of flat motion-pictures. Story has also been pushing its way into the dances. This work is nonverbal, but it is a linear narrative. Along with their dancing and their famous sculptural shape making, Pilobolus adds shadow puppetry techniques and animation tropes, and exerts a cinematic aesthetic on the mix. The immediacy of the bodies is interrupted and denied so many times that eventually one gives into the exuberant imagistic flow of this dance-theatre, and appreciates it for what it is. It’s very smart, rich in reference and symbol, if just a little predictable; it’s clever and funny and ominous–but it neither grabs you in the viscera nor releases endorphins, as Pilobolus’ pure dance works have been known to do.

Shadowland‘s a classic story. A very young woman, just feeling the stir of sexuality, poses and practices before a mirror. Noticed by her parents, she feels shame, and falls asleep to dream her fears and longings. There’s something of Colette’s Minne here, with her imagined adventures among the “Apaches” of the boulevards of Paris; there’s a hint of Clara from the Nutcracker, and of Alice in Wonderland, and more than a hint of Dorothy from Kansas: there’s no place like home, in the end. She’s an archetype–the sexually-budding female–and her lack of particularity allows us to view this slightly cautionary tale with a distanced calm. If some of the action had not been de-powered by its removal to two dimensions, it would have been very hard to take. There’s a lot of attempted violence against this girl, from the ubiquitous anonymous hands trying to go up her skirt, to men running at her with cleavers, to a giant figure who remakes her with a dog’s head and sends her down the road.

It is exactly this distancing that I find so unsatisfying. I’ve whined about it before (as early as 2008 and 2010), but with this beautifully constructed multimedia dance-theatre work, I finally get the point. I’d rather, personally, see all bodies all the time, but this is a different kind of stage art. And what if, in addition to being a story well shown, what if this  is a silent howl against the deforming gauntlet young girls endure, an objection to their objectification? What if it is a really subversive meta-statement on the struggles of real live dance against the flattening roller of electronic media? What if it is a Big Statement about loving one another, even if you’re a dog and the other is a…centaur?

Vive la danse, however theatrical. Continues through 6/18; if you go, be sure to stay for the adorable after-bows encore, with bulls and rainbows.


Pilobolus in SHADOWLAND, behind the screen in ADF opener at DPAC, 6/16/16. The production includes many cinematic references. Photo: Grant Halverson.

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.

ADF: Pilobolus


Pilobolus performing Skyscrapers in a previous ADF appearance. Photo: Grant Halverson, ©ADF.

Pilobolus performing Skyscrapers in 2012. Photo: Grant Halverson, ©ADF.


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.

Mike Tyus, Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern, and Eriko Jimbo of Pilobolus in the premiere of On the Nature of Things, June 26, 2014. Photo: Grant Halverson, ©ADF.

Mike Tyus, Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern, and Eriko Jimbo of Pilobolus in the premiere of                             On the Nature of Things, June 26, 2014. Photo: Grant Halverson, ©ADF.


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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