Pilobolus — Varying Degrees of Dance

August 28th, 2009 § 0 comments

I recently saw Pilobolus at the Joyce Theater for the first time since watching vhs tapes at a summer dance camp when I was perhaps ten. The athletic dance troupe reminded me of a quote by photographer Sally Mann, “art for fun, if you can imagine that!” as the night’s performance shifted between being fun, funny, and fantastic. Substituting the word dance for art in Mann’s statement, seems to question dancegoer’s expectations and how they are denied or satisfied by what they see—questions that are relevant to this particular dance company as they constantly question the boundaries of dance itself. The company’s great strengths and the inherent weaknesses lie entangled, like the bodies onstage, within issues of expectation. The great thing about being able to see all of these different companies I know too much about through hearsay and too little through actual experience, is that I have been surprised every time and by every company. Seeing a verity of dance that all fits within the genre of modern dance, helps to define what the range of modern dance can be. Learning dance groups, and their devoted audiences, is like learning movie genres. If you like horror films and are used to that set of cinematic conventions, you might not enjoy a romantic comedy designed to melt the hearts of easily entertained women. I began wondering about this after the opening number, the premier of the Pilobolus’s latest choreography utilizing shadows, when the couple sitting next to us exchanged an ugly look and the words, “well, it’s not Swan Lake.”


Of course it’s not Swan Lake, and it would be ridiculous of someone to expect this group to be able to perform anything remotely like it. Pilobolus was founded in the early 1970’s by members who were not classically trained dancers, nor were they interested in being such, and who had no interest in forming a traditional modern dance company. An amusing segment of an old 60 minutes interview shows the original members discovering the distinctive look and style we associate with the company today, by investigating every possible way in which they could entangle their bodies together. The narration states something along the lines of, “they created shapes with their bodies no one had ever seen before,” and that’s the truth. While some critics say they are not a dance company because they don’t really dance, others defend the group’s invented vocabulary of movements. The names they have for their trademarked maneuvers of awkward contortion are filled with humor, such as the movement aptly named “body floss.”

I would argue they are a dance company, but that enjoyment of their style depends on how much dance you like to be served compared with performance, props, humor, athletics, acrobatics, music, and effects. Pilobolus, as expected, leans more heavily on all the others than they do on clean, undiluted dance. As a young dancer I remember being amazed by their acrobatics like it was a kind of impossible physical magic. Throughout the night’s performance they were fantastic at times, pulling off pieces that defied all expectations, such as a haunting solo called pseudopodia—“a temporary protrusion of the protoplasm, as of certain protozoans, usually serving as an organ of locomotion or prehension”—an early piece from 1973 that was reworked for Saturday’s show, performed by an amazing male dancer. They were fun and funny, making us forget for a while that you are not supposed to laugh at dance with a new piece called Dog Id. It was full of humor and imagination and showed off the groups amazing ability to form the silhouetted shadow of just about any object, but it lacked direction and ended up feeling like an entertaining romp into the their latest experiment—fun, but not fulfilling. A more recently choreographed piece failed miserably on all accounts where the company usually succeeds, and the nights concluding piece (below) was all edge. Though I might personally prefer more actual dancing in a dance company, and while it was an uneven night of hits and misses, Pilobolus certainly creates an energetic style few other dance troupes mimic, and that no one does better.

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