July 13, 2009

The Joyce Theater, NYC

July 13–August 8, 2009

Reviewed by Christopher Atamian


Annika Sheaff in
2b. Photo by Sara D. Davis, Courtesy Pilobolus.

Just seeing Jun Kuribayashi perform the short but stunning 1973 solo Pseudopodia, by Jonathan Wolken, made attending Pilobolus worthwhile. Kuribayashi summersaults backwards onto the stage, achieving remarkable moments of tension, relaxation, and balance. The term “pseudopodia” refers to a contracting or projecting mechanism used by certain cells; it’s what amoebae use to locomote. With his sense of equilibrium, his ability to hold summersaults in improbable positions, and his amazing flexibility, Kuribayashi must come as close as a human can to mimicking this type of movement.

Such athletic prowess is typical of this company, which has thrilled audiences while perplexing critics for close to 40 years with its uncanny mixture of tumbling, gymnastics, and dance. But the group seems to have taken some cue from its critics, adding wonderful elements of puppetry and dance theater to the expected calisthenics-cum-footwork.

The first of three programs began with the 2009 Redline (also by Wolken), which purports to examine “the beauty and futility of physical battles.” It’s a well-performed piece which incorporates fast-paced elements of capoeira and other martial arts to a modern score by Battles, DJ Champion, and Autechre. The 1971 Walklyndon (by Robby Barnett, Lee Harris, Moses Pendleton, and Wolken) relies on humorous elements of clowning and vaudeville; the costumes and atmosphere make it seem like a sophisticated, upbeat version of Romper Room. From Inbal Pinto, Avshalom Pollak, and Barnett came Rushes, an excellent piece of dance theater. The dancers start off sitting in a circle on chairs (in a train station? an abandoned park?) and proceed to interact in remarkable ways, including re-arranging the chairs at lightning speed into myriad configurations. When the delightfully physical Annika Scheaff stretches to turn off a single light bulb we hold our breath, not wanting the performance to end. The night’s most spectacular presentation, Darkness and Light (choreographed by puppeteer Basil Twist, Barnett, and Wolken in 2008), employs a large screen and simple assortment of lights and instruments that transform the dancers into an astonishing series of beings, both human and alien. At one point the entire cosmos seems to fly by on screen in a breathtaking display.

Program 2’s DOG•ID (2009), credited to some 15 different people—including 9 of the performers and SpongeBob writer Steven Banks—uses a large screen and shadow plays to create dream-like and ambiguous sequences. When a hand stretches down from above as in a da Vinci painting, we’re not sure if it’s to banish or save the performers; when the dancers partake in a little culinary cannibalism, we’re unsure if the piece’s central character, an updated Alice-in-Wonderland who grows alternately tall and short, should be afraid or not. The 1997 Gnomen (by Barnett and Wolken) presented some remarkable tumbling elements—a veritable summersault fest. Lanterna Magica (2008), choreographed by Michael Tracy, takes place in a bog of some sort. Various insects and animals gravitate around a magic lantern. It’s a rather dreary piece that should either be re-worked or expunged from the repertory. In Megawatt (2004, also by Wolken) the performers jig out onto the stage on their backs as if they were being electrocuted. There’s something slightly disturbing about watching them twitch and gyrate so convincingly, but the piece also affords them a chance to display their own wonderfully individualistic takes to hard rock by Primus, Radiohead, and Squarepusher.

The Program 3 opener 2b is a fun but somewhat disappointing piece by Pinto and Pollak involving balloons and fish and some amusing transformations. Wolken’s eerie 2008 Razor:Mirror mixes elements of a circus sideshow and dance theater to sometimes comic effect. It’s an interesting direction for the company to take; with a bit more finesse it could be a stunning piece. Day Two, directed by Pendleton, was originally presented in 1980; after watching the seven dancers contort, perform martial art maneuvers, and generally climb all over each other naked to Brian Eno, David Byrne, and the Talking Heads, one almost wishes they had left it back in the 80s where it belongs. Still, it works as a period piece. The 2001 Symbiosis, a duo choreographed by Michael Tracy, displays the company’s signature flexibility and play with the human form; Jenny Mendez and Jeffrey Huang performed it magnificently.

It’s hard not to walk away in awe after a Pilobolus show. Even the disappointing elements are performed with a contagious energy and dedication. At the end of Program 3, the dancers slid out almost naked on water slides: They smiled, laughed, started a water fight, and then splashed the audience, who responded with a standing ovation.