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REVIEW: Sinuous Pilobolus Dance Theatre Show (Ordway)

Pilobolus Dance Theatre presented five recent pieces and one older work from its repertoire in a performance last weekend at the Ordway.  With the possible exception of choreographers from the Judson Church Dance Theatre or the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Pilobolus presents the best avant-garde movement in modern dance.  It is currently led by associate artistic directors Renee Jaworski and Matt Kent. 

“On the Nature of Things.” Photo by Robert Whitman.
“On the Nature of Things.” Photo by Robert Whitman.

Pilobolus was founded in 1971 by a group of non-classically trained dancers, two of which, Bobby Barnett and Michael Tracy, are still connected with the group as Charter Artistic Directors.  The group believed in the post-modernist ideal that dance can be created with visceral body movements generated in intense improvisational workshops.  They developed a vocabulary of movement that includes all kinds of everyday movement, performed with tremendous energy and requisite enthusiasm.

The strongest piece presented was the show’s first, titled “On the Nature of Things.”  The dance draws from the ongoing Pilobolus focus on contact improvisation.  Three dancers, Krystal Butler, Benjamin Coalter and Mike Tyus, intertwined, counter-balanced, and lifted each other in mesmerizing sculptural-style poses that continually evolve one into another.  The work was at once a holistic kinetic image and a highly experimental form of drama.  The viscerally triggered sequence of movement intrinsically tells the story of the creation of humankind, along with expressing longings of transcendence. 

“Wednesday Morning, 11:45." Photo by John Joyner.
“Wednesday Morning, 11:45.” Photo by John Joyner.

The second piece titled “Wednesday morning, 11:45” is a multimedia piece that draws on the Pilobolus experience integrating shadow puppetry with dance.  Two performers behind a shadow screen created ostrich-style creatures that moved through a mating ritual, rutting and exhaustion, resulting in an egg and a punchline.

“Thresh/Hold” was the third piece and held my imagination in a compelling grip.  Think of the mystery a closed doorway creates by its very existence.  It is an object to which moving toward or away from inherently becomes symbolic.  Interaction with an iconic object is an important artistic parameter of Pilobolus dance, giving rise to questions including: 

  1. What are all the kinds of things that can be done in a doorway?
  2. How far can you stretch without falling off?; and
  3. If you hold on to me, can I stretch even more?  

Interacting with a doorway on wheels, the dancers careened across stage, repeatedly jumping through the wildly flapping door and tumbling out the other side.  The continual entrance and exit movement opens one’s mind to the tantalizing image of a dimensional portal to an alternative universe.  The sound design by David Van Tieghem incorporating original music by Vincenzo Bellini magnifies the piece’s otherworldly mood. 

“Thresh│Hold.” Photo by John Joyner.
“Thresh│Hold.” Photo by John Joyner.

After intermission, six dancers in the “Inconsistent Peddler” performed what seemed like a scene from an absurdist play by Samuel Beckett, perhaps Endgame or The Lost Ones.  Five dancers were on the floor, lifeless until another enters and peddles a bicycle.   It becomes a kind of generator that gets the dancers up and moving.  They act out a drama about five characters at a birthday party.   Layered with titillating vignettes of making love and outrageous slapstick comedy, the work is an innovative piece of theatre.   

The final piece, ”Megawatt,” was originally choreographed by John Wolken in 2004.  This finale was performed with some of the same overt playfulness exhibited in piece I saw in the 1980s when I attended my first Pilobolus performance.  This earlier dance piece involved two or three plastic slip-and-slides with running water and the dancers sliding back-and-forth doing spontaneous movements; the performance dissolved into pure play on stage.  In the current work, this pure play concept is carried out with a collage-style sound design featuring music by Primus, Radiohead and Squarepusher.  The dancers performed on a plastic tarp, making electric shock-type movements as if they were on a vibrating table for toy football players.  But the play concept transformed into pseudo-violent movement, reflecting the concussive action found in contact sports

The Pilobus name refers to a type of fungus whose spores jump six to eight feet to find a place to grow.  In this production, Pilobus shows that its work continues to grow as they explore and redefine artistry as a function of human energy and enthusiasm. 

Dan Reiva