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Movement Over Time

Pilobolus Dance Theater, 2010 Tour
Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center at College of the Canyons and Pepperdine University’s Smothers Theater –

Pilobolus began in the early 1970s by taking the risk to be abstract. Their early pieces, some of which emphasized process and metamorphosis, such as “Ciona” from 1973, were fascinating, time-bending body-essays combining athletic skills and visual composition. This new non-narrative dance, movement for movement’s sake, had not yet gained a crowd-pleasing reputation with classicist patrons who were used to modern dance companies that offered a story line. Still, they built a following and cultivated a fan base whose credo sounded “dance for people who hate dance.”  Nearly forty years later Pilobolus are frequently criticized for having become too commercial, for courting the crowd’s wow-bones, and are no longer perceived as risktakers in today’s world of more extreme dance–a world they helped bring into being. Earlier this month they performed at both the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center and Pepperdine’s Smothers Theater, so it was time to catch up with Pilobolus on this leg of their West Coast tour.

 Both evenings included Pilobolus’ most recent work, “Contradance,” a collaboration with self-described “family” music-maker Dan Zanes. Contradance begins with Jun Kuribayashi on stage alone under an upside-down rocking chair. The dance and narrative begin to progress. Eventually a group of five dancers arrives. Kuribayashi and one woman in the group (Eriko Jimbo) soon develop an interest in each other; the balance of the company spends all day attempting to dissuade them from pairing, but by evening come to accept him as the couple are united. The rocking chair becomes an integral prop, as it is used as a hiding place, a platform for inducing injury, a rowboat, and more. The delicious costumes by Liz Prince are a collective and varied feast for the eyes, but their loose-fitting nature (drawstrings, skirts, hats) makes it hard to actually see the dancers’ bodies in contact with each other. The dancing includes many examples of the weight-sharing techniques for which Pilobolus are well known. They also incorporate allusions to folk dance, performing at some points their update of the actual contra dance form, which is based on paired lines of dancers who partner with alternate members as the lines interweave. Dan Zane’s lyrics work well to seed the narrative, but the excessive volume at which they’re played cannot compensate for the undistinguished songs. The exception is a banjo solo that is sublime–if only it were lowered in the mix so that we weren’t being clobbered with its delicacy. Still, it is a fine accompaniment for a tender duet  between Kuribyashi and Jimbo, who copy one another’s tentative movements at a distance as part of their courtship. No words are needed, thankfully: we are trusted with understanding this particular intimacy. It would have been nice to be given more credit throughout as an audience–I wonder what the piece would be like without the clanging, repetitive music or the elaborate costumes. I thought the dance itself was trying too hard, but the audience enjoyed it to the very end: a night scene of the boy and girl flying on the elevated arms of their accepting community.

The Santa Clarita program included the dazzling virtuoso somersaulting solo from 1973, the late artistic director Jonathan Wolken’sPseudopodia,”  performed by Kuribyashi. The insistent score (all hand drumming by Wolken and Moses Pendleton, a Pilobolus member when the work was created) isn’t click-track synchronized to every movement, but forms an atmosphere of aural urgency for the dance’s dogged exploration of change and stasis. Several times the audience (mostly Pilobolus first-timers, I’d gather) broke out in applause: once for a sudden shoulder stand with no arm support; another for a legs-wide, torso-forward spinal undulation; yet another for a gentle gradual pull to the performer’s face of a foot that had been folded away for safe keeping. When the music stopped, there was more applause, but the curtain was still up. The piece isn’t over until the performer exits in reverse somersaults off stage, accompanied by silence. “Pseudopodia” is a rich, thrilling work that has benefitted from gifted performers including Rebecca Anderson Darling and Kuribayashi, who have over the years added their own unique interpretive touches with blessings from the original choreographer.

Gnomen” is one of the masterworks in the Pilobolus repertoire. This 1997 men’s quartet is engaging, varied in emotional range, and comprehensive in its beauty. The four dancers enter in locked pairs, rolling from offstage as if they were tires on an axle severed from a semi. They then take turns being the object of focus, which ranges from encouragement to abuse. One dancer (Shawn Patrick Ahern) gets so tangled up during his ill treatment that he is left erect on one foot and one hand. He manages to ambulate with great effort, but is restored to normal by the group out of what might be pity. Another (Kuribyashi) is, after struggle, rocked gently by the other three, who cradle him only with one foot each. There are many other compelling ensemble moments in this work that deserve attention, including a remarkable inverted “iron cross,” during which the dancer performing that difficult maneuver (Matt Del Rosario) is held by his outstretched hands by two other dancers and moved about the stage in mid-air. David M. Chapman’s lighting is effective throughout, maintaining mystery while allowing the audience to see fine details, such as the expressions on the dancers’ faces when the current “victim” is “gonged” on his head, which then oscillates to the recorded tam-tam while the others marvel at the result of their effort. “Gnomen” ends with all four men still, facing the audience, in quiet unity having traversed more than just physical ground.

The Santa Clarita performance also included a brief excerpt from the elaborate evening-length Shadowland: “The Transformation” was performed by Eriko Jimbo and Nile Russell, the shortest and tallest members of the company. Although the excerpt incorporated almost no Pilobolean weight-sharing, the dancers’ manipulation of their bodies to achieve communication in a two-dimensional projection was more than just clever. They mime silhouettes from behind a screen to enact a story in which a girl is transformed into various shapes, culminating in a half-girl, half-dog that is ready to set out in the world. Although the music by David Poe suggests dark times ahead (and anyone who knows the full-length work knows that’s the case), this audience laughed with approval at every dramatic shift, whether it was decapitation or dehumanization, without any sense of sinister intent.

Another work on both programs was “Megawatt” from 2004. It is a brilliant showpiece for the entire P7 ensemble and harks back to the Pilobolus process days while incorporating more theatrical elements, such as the solo spots near the end. There are copious goings-on in the work, too numerous to absorb during one viewing. And after having seen it live four times in the last two years, it continues to unfold. It is a busy, nervous piece that deals with subdivisions of the ensemble in various interesting and challenging ways. In contrast with most of the works on the program, the choreography has tight literal rhythmic correspondence with the music (songs by Primus, Radiohead, and Squarepusher). The middle section, aurally infused with Radiohead’s “The Gloaming,” is dreamlike; at one point the women’s right legs are held by partners seated on the ground while their left feet describe solemn oar-like movements in the air, as though pushing skateboards on the moon; the other dancers are seated behind, moving their heads and hands spastically, as though beating invisible drums. Other sections of the work involve stylized combat, wormlike supine propulsion, and simulations of electrical shock (including the theatrical transference of current between partners). It is a disturbing piece that has a tone more like Blade Runner than what its highly kinetic profile might suggest.

Every year one hears former Pilobolus enthusiasts bemoaning their current non-abstract pieces, including the shadow work, that are governed by traditional narrative or that use theatrical devices. Let’s face it: Pilobolus is the Joni Mitchell of the movement world. Joni won’t write another Blue, but she did come up with Court and Spark and Hejira; let’s allow Pilobolus an equally wide berth instead of beating them up for attempting to try new things. Even when they don’t fully succeed, as is the case with “Contradance,” they need room to move artistically, and they have maintained their artistic integrity while running the risk of becoming even more popular. Fortunately they’re not afraid to program those earlier, captivating, groundbreaking works alongside their recent offspring. Perhaps their longevity and relevance are due to their willingness to grow into more than a dance company–with their commercial organization (Pilobolus Creative Services), their education group (The Pilobolus Institute), and separate touring companies within the dance theatre itself (to perform the large-scale shadow pieces and other works not suited to the P7 ensemble). No doubt all three of these branches inform the other. At Monday night’s master class at College of the Canyons, Kuribayashi told the 27 students, “As an artist, without an opinion you don’t have a voice.” Pilobolus has evolved its opinions about movement to the point where it can take risks by not taking them–such complexity is welcome in a healthy, exciting, important artistic organism.

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