Tangled Up in You

August 2, 2009

Pilobolus Dance Theater delights and compels, mesmerizes and befuddles. When watching them perform, one’s mind is a flurry of questions like “How’d they do that?” and “Where’d that arm come from?” and “Who’s holding who?” But it’s more than just gymnastics or circus stunts.

The inventiveness of these daring dancers has a 39-year history of more than 100 dance works, proving what you can do when you work together as a team—in ways you’d never imagine.

Co-artistic director Robby Barnett talks about Pilobolus as an organism, using scientific terminology that you wouldn’t expect from a dancer. “We look for a kind of membroidian fractal application of our beliefs,” he says. The name Pilobolus itself came from a type of fungus that co-founder Jonathan Wolken studied. Though the terms might seem misplaced outside of a laboratory, when you watch the company dance together it can be like looking through a lab microscope. Like an amoeba, they have no fixed shape, but are in constant flux. Bodies move together, then separate from one large mass to a few smaller groups. Then they reunite, forming a new structure of limbs and torsos, balanced on heads, hands, and feet. Audiences are fascinated and presenters love to book them.

It all started in 1971 with a dance composition class at Dartmouth College taught by Alison Chase. The company founders, Wolken and Moses Pendleton, met in that class; later that year classmates Robby Barnett and Lee Harris joined their team. Pendleton, Wolken, Harris, and Barnett presented their first concert in New York that summer, performing the piece they’d developed in Chase’s class, Pilobolus. In 1973, Chase, who trained with Merce Cunningham and Mia Slavenska, left Dartmouth to join her former students full time; Harris left and was replaced by Michael Tracy, another Dartmouth peer. And the sixth member, Martha Clarke, had been a dancer with Anna Sokolow.

The strength of Pilobolus—in technique, in organization, and in philosophy—is in its core. “The original Pilobolus was a group of four men twisted together like proteins trying to figure out how to move across the floor en masse,” says Barnett. “We clung to each other for moral and physical support. We had a single center as a compound creature. If your partner moved away you would fall down.” The creation of the company came out of the ethos of the 1960s. “Our generation had freedom to imagine what our lives could be. It was a physical life, a creative life, and we were doing it with people we enjoyed being with.”

Though the company has gone through changes (Pendleton left in 1981 to form his own company, MOMIX; Clarke also left to pursue her own dance/theater work) the core values remain. The current company has seven performing members, three artistic directors, and a whole lot of collaboration.

Although Jenny Mendez, who joined Pilobolus in 2004, started dance at a late age, she was immediately comfortable with the founders of Pilobolus. “They had no ballet experience, no modern experience, the company grew out of their own physical abilities. I related to that because I knew I liked to run and jump and fall.”

Dance captain Andrew Herro was also attracted to the physicality. A former athlete, he came to dance at Marquette University because he wanted to keep himself physically active. His athletic background has helped him, though. “I’ve got several pieces where I’m picking up two people at a time. If you get your body physically strong you have a lot more options available for you to work with other bodies.”

For a piece like Megawatt (2004), performed to the music of Primus, Radiohead, and Squarepusher, Mendez says, “It’s 16 minutes of pure raw physicality; it’s about how much you can push yourself to roll, jump, flip, create these incredible movements onstage.”

Though Barnett says there is no set technique, the dancers have terms for the ways weight can be shared and carried. For example, “reciprocals” are the way “you pick somebody up and put them on their feet, then they pick you up and put you back on your feet,” explains company member Annika Sheaff. “It’s unexpected and the audience can’t see how it’s happening or if they can see it, they can’t believe it’s happening,” she says. “Those magical moments are typical Pilobolus.”

In repertory classics like Ocellus, Day Two, Gnomen, Pseudopodia, and Symbiosis, the dancers form amazing entanglements that yield shapes unlike two bodies in a typical dancer’s embrace. Nearly nude in many of these works, their muscles and limbs glisten. Though its obvious that a great deal of strength is required for a dancer to hold himself on a diagonal straight line hinged only on another dancer’s thigh, or for a woman to crawl up a man’s body like a spider and hang from his neck by her ankles, the dancing is always graceful, agile, and somehow natural.

Other works incorporate these balancing skills into something more theatrical and often funny. In one of the company’s earliest pieces, Walklyndon (1971), a dancer balances on his arms in a horizontal plank, while two dancers push his head and legs like a seesaw. This silent physical-theater piece is rife with slapstick humor. In Lanterna Magica the dancers are mythical creatures who flit around with a lantern on a long rod, tumbling and balancing, and just playing around. There’s no doubt that the dancers are having fun.

In recent years, collaboration has grown with artists and choreographers outside of the company. The first came in 1999 with artists/authors Maurice Sendak and Arthur Yorinks to create A Selection, which is documented in the film Last Dance (2002). In 2007, the company in­vited Israeli choreographers Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak to create a work. The result was the quirky and riveting Rushes.

“It was a strange experiment for Inbal and me because we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Pollack says. “Pilobolus is a great group of people who have fun and are fun to be with and can do many things. They gave us the opportunity to go in a different direction than they’re used to going,” such as the use of costumes, sets, props, and character development. One dancer wears suspenders and carries a suitcase while hunched over, skittering around the space; three men climb onto one another to create a slot machine of their bodies and faces. It’s all darkly humorous mixed with astonishing lifts and balances, proving that the company is not only a troupe of dancers, but also of gymnasts, actors, mimes, and collaborators.

This summer the company will perform a second collaboration with Pinto and Pollak during their season at the Joyce, July 13–Aug. 8. They’ll also premiere a collaboration with Steven Banks, the head writer of the cartoon Sponge­Bob SquarePants. Last year Pilobolus worked with New York City puppeteer Basil Twist for Darkness and Light.

The shadows-as-dancers in Twist’s piece was not the first time they experimented with shadow work. In 2006 the company got the gig of doing a commercial for Hyundai Santa Fe, creating silhouettes of campfires, bicycles, harps, and opera singers using only their bodies. “You’re trying to hit these specific shapes and perfect images. The process is really about finding what exactly makes that image come to life,” says Herro. The ad led to the invitation to make shadow images for the 2007 Oscars—from a women’s high heel shoe with a devil’s fork for the heel, to a van with passengers riding in it, to a firing gun. This type of gig involves an extended company that includes former members and those trained specifically for the commercial work.

Five years ago the company hired its first-ever executive director, Itamar Kubovy. In 2005, mother of Pilobolus Alison Chase was let go—a painful decision all around. When she asked the company to stop performing the works she’d helped to choreograph, it raised complex questions about choreographic rights.

Pilobolus tours seven to eight months a year. In the past year they’ve been to New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, and Israel. The company often performs in the U.S. as well. This fall and winter they’ll makes stops in over a dozen states, from Vermont to California. Abroad or on home turf though, audiences can enter a place of euphoria watching the company perform.

“We’ve been through plenty of ups and downs over the years, but at the moment the company is on a wonderful upswing,” Barnett says. “The thing I’m most proud of is Pilobolus the arts organism. It was like getting a fire going and keeping it burning. For all its quirks and faults and errors, the company has survived. We’ve made this creature Pilobolus, which in its turn does many things.”  

Emily Macel, a former associate editor for
Dance Magazine, is now based in Washington, DC.


Photography by John Kane, Courtesy Pilobolus