Pilobolus: the Mouth Full Mind Boggler
Francine L. Trevens
Memory often plays tricks. It is over thirty years since I first saw Pilobolus at Jacob’s Pillow. They remained vivid in my memory for all this time. It was therefore a delight to revisit the company on its 35th anniversary when it came to New York City this summer, and to get some information directly from one of the co-artistic directors.
Some dance companies you remember for beautiful stage pictures, others for one or two splendid dancers, some for ensemble work, a few for their quirky humor, still others because they have broken some barrier or preconception.
Pilobolus could be remembered for all – but my memory was of a youthful, vigorous, buoyant company whose dancers didn't so much dance on stage as bounce and glide weightless about it. Marveling at their lifts and leaps and other comings together and separations was like observing strange beings through a microscope: An ameba-like organism that is first one entity, then splits into other fully formed entities.
Seeing them again now, I realize how fantastic it is for such exquisitely strong, muscular bodies to appear weightless. Yet, in the litheness of their movements, the intricacies of their embraces and entanglements, that is the concept with which one leaves the theatre.
They are unique. Their movements defy not only gravity, but also human form. They appear to effortlessly execute moves that would paralyze the average jock, expert yogi, or contortionist.
Performing mostly on a bare stage against blacks, only the dancers in their form-fitting outfits which defy you to decide where fabric ends and flesh begins, command the stage and your eye. With artful lighting to keep you focused on their incredible moves, they decorate the stage with their own being.
They may roll onto the performance space, one big headless ball of arms and legs and torsos, then break apart into four dancers who perform alone, yet always in some form of connection with the others. They may come on solo, bathed in a red light, and dance in almost snakelike gyrations along the floor, before darting and leaping with the speed and ease of a hummingbird. They may amble on with several others, standing aloof, tempted by an Eve and her apple. Then one breaks away and does a Chaplinesque routine on rollers with hat and cane that make one think of an aerialist. Whatever, they are the stage décor and a delight of movement. Athletic, with the contortionist abilities seldom seen on a dance stage, they startle the eye and boggle the brain.
Pilobolus (Crystallinus) is a phototropic zygomycete – a sun-loving fungus that grows in barnyards and pastures. It’s a feisty little thing — only ¼ inch tall that can throw its spores nearly eight feet — right over a cow! Well, a cow may jump over the moon, but no one can out-jump this human Pilobolus.
What or who gave rise to such an unusual troop, such a unique vision and such a mouth full of a name?
Robby Barnett, a co- Artistic Director, called it, “A utopian ideal with a powerful thread of Emersonian individualism.” He then amplified by saying: “We have a theory about our company that says something deeper about the nature of our field. We all went to college in the 1960’s and that time reinforced among many other things a movement toward community. Or, to be more accurate, a movement supporting the idea that individuals can withdraw from the expectations of a large society and join together into smaller groups with common beliefs.
“In short, we are a product of a society that encouraged cooperative activity and we applied that ethos to making art.”
And art it is. Art that staggers the viewer into a state of awe.
Naturally, the troupe does not have the same dancers it had thirty-five years ago at its inception at Dartmouth. So what sort of dancers do they seek? Barnett says, “We're looking for smart, funny people with something to say about the world.” They find them through open auditions.
Perhaps the most important factor in the uniqueness of this company may be found in the statement of who founded the company, “We're a collaborative organization founded by four men with no background in dance. The physical vocabularies of our dances are not drawn from codified traditions or modern dance but are invented, emerging from intense periods of creative play.”
Pilobolus is now a company of international influence and renown, which retains its deeply committed collaborative effort with its three artistic directors (Robby Barnett, Michael Tracy, Jonathan Wolken) and seven dancers of varied ethnic, physical and sexual identities (Andrew Herro, Jeffrey Huang, Renee Jaworski, Jun Kuribayashi, Jenny A. Mendez, Manelich Minnifee and Edwin Olvera) all contributing to a varied repertoire.
Home base is Washington Depot, Connecticut, but Pilobolus performs for stage and television audiences worldwide.
Their works have appeared in other dance company repertoires, including Joffrey, Feld, Ohio, and Arizona Ballets in the States. They have received honors, among them the Berlin Critic’s Prize, the Brandeis Award and the New England Theatre Conference Prize. In 1997 they won a Primetime Emmy Award for outstanding achievement in cultural programming. They also won, at the start of the millennium, the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for lifetime achievement in choreography.
They have collaborated with other organizations as diverse as the National Theatre of the Deaf and the English Baroque Soloists.
In 1991 they inaugurated Pilobolus Institute, an educational outreach program using choreography as a model for creative thinking in any field. It teaches throughout the country and last year provided 35 weeks of educational programming.
They also have Pilobolus Too, a two person performing company to perform in less well-equipped venues than the Joyce Theatre in New York, thus allowing them to bring their work to under-served areas of the country.
Another interesting Pilobolus offshoot is the company’s third arm of choreographic activity – Pilobolus Creative Services, which has made television commercials for such companies as Bloomingdale’s, General Motors, Toyota and more, as well as special live events for IBM, Dupont and others.
In their thirty-five years of continual performing and creativity, they have produced 85 choreographic works. They retain a sense of youth, vigor and contemporary complexity.
They claim in their printed comments they want to remain as “protean and surprising as ever”. As an impressed viewer 35 years later, I applaud their success in this endeavor as well as all their auxiliary ways of expanding their insights and concepts.