Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Pilobolus Dance Theatre - Making Connections

photo courtesy from the Ordway
My first experience with Pilobolus occurred several years ago when someone sent me a YouTube link of their performance at the Oscars.  Amazing—a group of people moving in silhouettes, rolling onto the stage, and morphing into animals, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty or a five-petaled flower.

Pilobolus Dance Theatre is a modern dance company based in Washington Depot, CT that began over 40 years ago.

Pilobolus?  A dance company named after a fungus that grows on cow dung?

But that fungus, which thrives in sunshine, has an amazing ability to propel its spores, sometimes up to 8 feet, with speed, strength and accuracy.  So, the name is very fitting.  Not only does it describe the style of movement, but it also conveys how the company has grown throughout its history.

In 1971 the primary goal of Pilobolus was "to make dances, spend time with people we admire, and have fun." Over time, the company's boundaries have expanded, propelling them into television commercials, film, business, science, and education.  They've embraced connections between dance and other disciplines such as visual art, comics, biology, robotics, engineering, puppetry, journalism, and music videos.  They also have an institute where they work with schools and other groups, teaching their movement and collaborative choreography style to people of all ages and abilities.  So, this group is also creating community.

The performance of Pilobolus I saw at the Ordway on Saturday night was a lot different from what I saw on YouTube, but much more than I expected.

photo courtesy of Ordway
In the first piece, Automaton, the dancers moved like machines while three full-length mirrors rotated around them.  Toward the beginning of this dance, one of the more human-like dancers interacted with the other machine-like ones, as though initiating a more human quality to their movements.  Self-awareness occurred as some of the dancers interacted with themselves in front of the mirrors, and at one point the mirrors were held at an angle above so that to the audience, it looked like their reflections were floating.  The dancers broke into duets, their movements exploring partnering relationships, and the effect of the partners moving in front of the three enclosing mirrors was surreal.  The dance progressed with the whole group moving into and out of light and shadows in smooth, wave-like motions.  Toward the end it, was as though they had become one well-oiled unit instead individuals doing their own mechanical stuff.  At the close, the human machine wound down into a cluster that eventually jerked to a stop.

A soft exclamation rose up from the audience.      

In between each piece short film clips were shown - explosions of eggs, household items, etc., rapid growth of various plant life (spores!) an x-ray of a person swallowing, cloning themes and mirror images of automation which reminded me of Huxley's Brave New World.

photo courtesy from the Ordway
Skyscrapers, the second piece, was a series of tango-like dances with partners dressed in colors that matched the changing backdrops.  (See photo.)  As the colors of the dancers changed, so did the backdrops.  There were humorous surprises as the backdrops took on multiple colors—green and orange, and the dancers came out dressed in half green and half orange.  Or a female dancer would enter wearing red while the backdrop was a different color (say blue), and with a flip of the upper part of her dress, she was wearing blue.  A male dancer wearing purple walked out into the purple-and-white scene to meet his partner, who also wore purple, and as a final surprise, she yanked at her dress and it became white.

Transformation was a small slice of what was projected at the Oscars, beginning with a single female shadow and a larger-than-life hand reaching down to interact with her.  The hand covered the girl completely, removing her head, and then covered her again to bring her head back!  The hand changed her into a dog with a wagging tail and an extended paw.  In the final transformation, the dog was changed back to the girl, now wearing a hat and toting a bindle over her shoulder, ready for her next adventure.

The last piece, Sextet 2013, began with glowing 10-foot ropes.  They became like sine waves as the dancers rippled them in rhythm to the different sounds in the music.  Dancers began jumping over and dodging under the ropes, winding them around different body parts, theirs, as well as the other dancers'.  One male dancer hopped around with his leg in a rope like a sling, and in another sequence, a group of dancers formed a human cat's cradle pattern.

In the Talk Back discussion after the performance one of the artistic directors said they had searched for a specific Northern Mexican music selection to use for this piece, but discovered the Nortec Collective based in Tijuana.  The group worked with them, observing their choreography and responding musically. In turn, the dancers responded to the music created; the musicians responded to the movements with more music, back and forth, in Pilobolus' signature creative interactive style.

After the show it was neat to hear comments from the dancers and artistic directors.  "Choreography is about moments and intentions.  Not defining what it is, allows us to be ourselves."  Since the Pilobolus founders came from non-traditional movement backgrounds, the company's creative process is very organic and doesn't have "standard" steps as in ballet or jazz.  Often dancers decide who's going to lead and who's going to follow, and they go from there.  They make up names for moves that they create such as "Hollobred" or  "Trendytrain."  (Probably spelled wrong here.)  The rule is, if you make the move, you get to name it. 

When asked, "What's your favorite part of dance?" there were a variety of responses.
 "I took engineering in college and lost all my stress when I was able to live on stage, not even thinking about the audience." 
"I have a lot of energy. I was a hyperactive kid." and "I needed a place to channel my energy."
"Dance is my way to process the world."
"I'm always choreographing in my head."
"I like creating dances and teaching, especially kids."
"I like making new things and speaking without words."
From the lighting designer:  "In my mind I can be young and thin."
 "I like that, for 2 hours I can live on the stage with the rest of the dancers, and my only thought is how to interact with them."
"Joy, wonder and awe - dance touches people like nothing else does."
And my favorite response, which encompasses the whole theme of Pilobolus Dance Theatre:  "I get to learn about psychology, music, art history; I get to look up information about all these things which I wouldn't have done if there wasn't a dance about it." 
If you'd like to see any other performances at the Ordway, check out or call 651-224-4222. 

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