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.

Pilobolus, Back in the Groove, as ADF continues at DPAC

From [esc], June 20, 2013, DPAC. Photo: Grant Halverson, courtesy ADF.

From Licks, June 20, 2013, DPAC. Photo: Grant Halverson, courtesy ADF.

Just this week I had to explain what Pilobolus is, to a woman in my Pilates class, so I know that not everyone knows about this ever-morphing dance group named for a fungus–even though here in Durham, where the plastic fantastic dance company appears each year at the American Dance Festival, it is easy to assume everyone’s seen their awesome antics at least once. Whether you have or haven’t, this is a good year to go. After some faltering collaborations with outside artists (last year was pitiful), the collaborative group has found its footing again (if you’ll excuse the phrase) and is repeating the 20th’s wonderful program the 21st and 22nd at DPAC.

In Penn & Teller, the comedic magician-escape artists, Pilobolus has found an intriguing match. Together they made a strange and unforgettable hybrid. Commissioned by the ADF, [esc] received its world premiere on the 20th at DPAC, where it was received with howls of approval from the audience. The first section is structured like a classic escape act, with audience members helping to build a box and secure four dancers in various ways. They then release themselves through feats of agility and magic, which I won’t spoil here.

From [esc], June 20, 2013, DPAC. Photo: Grant Halverson, courtesy ADF.

From [esc], June 20, 2013, DPAC. Photo: Grant Halverson, courtesy ADF.

Following immediately was Licks, by Trish Sie and Renee Jaworski and the dancers. It is another ADF commission, also having its premiere. Licks is pure dance, with ropes, to a mixtape of high energy music. The theme is again escape, which always requires previous capture or restraint, as we have just seen.  Many variations on escape and its predecessors are gorgeously danced out in classically elegant Pilobolean choreography, with its flow through recombinant structures and groupings. The ropes, although we know the dancers are manipulating them, seem as alive as the people (as do the kites, in a charming video preceding [esc]). The ropes come in handy to visualize another of Pilobolus’ ongoing preoccupations, the behavior of wave forms not normally visible to the naked eye. Together, [esc] and Licks are a little bit spooky, with a slightly dangerous feel, especially Licks.

From [esc], June 20, 2013, DPAC. Photo: Grant Halverson, courtesy ADF.

From Licks, June 20, 2013, DPAC. Photo: Grant Halverson, courtesy ADF.

The program’s first half includes the marvelous, funny, Molly’s Not Dead (1978) for six dancers in red, orange or yellow Lycra bodysuits. Both the shape-making and the silly carrying-on in this are first-rate. All Is Not Lost (2011) romps light-heartedly with the coolness of imaging technology. The dancers mount a special glass table and a video camera underneath captures their images and flips them upright to project them on a screen beside the live action. It is a blast to see the dancers from underneath, especially when the group is making like a crayfish. Following this was the fantastically beautiful, and beautifully danced, Ocellus (1972), choreographed by some of Pilobolus’ original members for a male quartet. All this richness, and then two world premieres. A very good night at ADF.

A first time for everything: disappointing Pilobolus at ADF


Pilobolus did not look like this at DPAC July 6. Photo: John Kane, courtesy of the ADF.

I know there is supposed to be a first time for everything—but a disappointing Pilobolus performance? Before last night I hadn’t thought it possible. Life constantly assures us that everything changes and that is all that can be depended upon, and after 40 years, surely Pilobolus’ current members must be interested in experimenting outside their well-known style. But, but, but … it is a shame that the company is messing around with simulacra when they have those electrifying bodies.

American Dance Festival  hosts Pilobolus each year, making happy audiences and making money at the same time. However, although large, the audience in the Durham Performing Arts Center for Thursday night’s opening wasn’t so happy. The concert included five works—two were ADF-commissioned premieres—and all but one of them began with video on a small screen lowered from the grid.

The first one, which preceded the dance in Azimuth, wasn’t so bad. At the time, I thought it was a kind of prologue for the whole evening, signaling that the work would be about systems of movement, patterns of growth and organization, rather than about the kind of kinetic sculpture-building that Pilobolus has done so well for so long. When the dance began—this was one of the new ADF commissions—it seemed at first that all was well. Under lighting that pooled bright downstage and glimmered coolly upstage, things of the universe were explored in a cirque-like manner. Using balls, circular hoops and long arced pieces of circles, references were made to astronomical relationships, the curvature of the earth, and such like. It was pretty; many of the sequences were smart, and some of the movement—but it just didn’t pack much punch. If this is to stay in repertory, it needs more work.

Curtain down, curtain up for Skyscrapers (2012)—and here comes the video screen again. This time, the video was of a very long, fast, motorcycle ride through early-morning Paris. We didn’t see the bike, only the onrushing scenery. But we heard its high whining engine as it worked up and down the gears. At the end, the engine switches off (hallelujah), the rider jumps off and rushes toward a young woman approaching the meeting place on foot. They embrace just as the sun touches her bright blonde hair. Yuck. Then we—the live audience—wait while the screen is raised. Urban backdrops appear, sliding along horizontally like flicked images on an iPad. Along a shallow space before them, amorous couples dance through, their clothes color-coded to the backgrounds. Since we had already been bludgeoned by video with the concept—the urgency of desire—it was pretty boring.

Curtain down, curtain up, video screen down. Groans heard in the house. The video for Sweet Purgatory (ADF-commissioned in 1991) showed huge flocks of small birds wheeling and swooping in a gray autumn sky, in the kind of mass migratory flight one rarely sees anymore. Much better than the motorcycle. But again, the video said it all, before the dance began. The actual dancing had some wonderful moments; really, it was quite beautiful overall. Without the video, it might have the wonder and amazement of birds in flight. As it was, the real dance felt like a rehash of the video.

The first, very short work, after intermission shows how Pilobolus’ explorations of new methods and forms can pay off years after the first experiments. The Transformation (no video—this time the title gives it all away) involves a huge shadow person behind a scrim, “manipulating” another dancer in front of it. It was funny and cute and there was no freaking video—but once again, a technical trick got between us the bodies.

The evening’s final work, another premiering ADF commission, was a collaboration among the Flemish-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Renée Jaworski of Pilobolus, and the dancers. Called Automaton, it involves six dancers, three large mirrored panels, and another very large mirror hung at an angle on the back wall. Many aspects are similar to Cherakaoui’s Babel, which was seen at Carolina Performing Arts last fall, but the work does not have Babel’s super-powers. Unfortunately, Automaton also begins with video—this time images of things being destroyed in various ways. The last is a bottle of wine blowing up a microwave oven from the inside. The connection between the video images and the dance is not so overt here, which is a relief. The dancers move the mirrors around, and move in and out of range of the big mirror. Sometimes we see the reflections of things we can’t actually see; sometimes we see splintered and repeated images of bodies that we do see. It’s pretty clever, but it neither enlightens nor heartens.

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