Since their 1971 formation on the Dartmouth campus, Pilobolus has been the living embodiment of Curt Sachs’ proclamation that dance “gives and shall always offer something of the ardent desire of humanity for victory over gravity, transfiguration of body and soul, exaltation of creature to the level of creator, a reaching into the infinite . . . .”
Whether they’re folding themselves into teapots, or teaching kids about geometric shapes, or creating hitherto-unimagined human sculptures that defy both gravity and description, Pilobolus combines boundless physical strength with limitless imagination to create dance pieces that titillate and tantalize; that make us think and wonder . . . and, with some frequency, gasp in amazement.
This year, the group brought two different shows to Chelsea’s long-running dance mainstay, the venerable Joyce Theater. There are only a few more shows left in this year’s Pilobolus run. Last night, I enjoyed “Program A.” Grab whatever tickets are left, and go see them while you can.
Even before the show began, we were welcomed into Pilobolus’ world. While the audience filed into their seats, dancers milled about the stage, talking, laughing, warming up, stretching out into dramatic yoga poses, running barefoot circles around the stage perimeter. One dancer would lift another up, the former’s chest serving as the pendulum pivot for the latter’s rod and bob, swinging (seemingly) effortlessly back and forth…
Eventually, the lights dimmed, and we were treated to a brief introductory video, Pilobolus is a Fungus, featuring fluoroscopic swallowing footage, cellular organelles and time lapse imagery of Pilobolus crystallinus, the beautiful and bizarre “dung cannon” fungus from which the group took its name.
The evening’s program began with On the Nature of Things, a powerful ‘creation mythic’ work of multifarious sensuality, multidirectional sexuality and graceful savagery:
Out of the dark, a man enters with another man slung over his shoulder. He gently drapes the limp figure across a raised round platform (only 2-3 feet in diameter). Each chiseled body is covered by only the smallest of flesh-toned thongs. Is this Jehovah and Adam? Prometheus and his human-clay creation (or, perhaps, his co-creator brother Epimetheus?). A nameless captor with his hapless prey? We don’t know.
He brings out another lifeless form, this time a comparably-suited female (Eve?) (Prometheus’ Athena?) (Epimetheus’ Pandora?), who he stands upright atop the first, still prone body. Soon, the three bodies are exploring, lifting, crawling, climbing above and writhing about each other, all within the improbable confines of a small cylinder of space above, and just over the edge of, this small round pedestal. The dancers employ their bodies as extensions of the others’, creating a unified organism that moves simultaneously in multiple directions about a single collective center of gravity—the middle body holding the other two upright as they cantilever over opposing edges of their diminutive columnar universe. This pas de ménage à trois takes place in sultry slow motion, requiring extraordinary strength and control to effect such athletic maneuvers while keeping each motion smooth and graceful.
But the seeds of discontent bring this ecstatic, elegant era of exploration to a close, and the woman wrests herself from the two men and their collective perch, her body coming to rest in a static, twisted, exaggerated-seductive pose on the floor, off to one side. The interactions between two men, still on the platform, devolve into an erotically-charged slow-motion battle (for dominance over the other? over the woman?), their bodies still moving in grand, largo arcs as they claw, grapple, parry and defend against one another. Set to a backdrop of mournful, operatic Vivaldi (featuring Clare McNamara’s stunning mezzo-soprano) the three dancers’ interactions conjure an atmosphere of lush, elegant, (Peter Greenaway-like) sensuously-baroque violence.
In the end, only the initial creator/captor remains. This seeming creation myth seems to have ended with the destruction of that which had been created. Perhaps the initial figure represents serial manifestations of the Hindu Trimurti: Brahma (world-creator), Vishnu (world preserver) and Shiva (world destroyer/transformer)… Regardless, this brief adventure was painfully beautiful and incredibly moving.
While the stage crew changed the scenery for the next piece, we were treated to Robert Löbel’s Wind, an animated short about a world subjected to perpetual gale-force gusts (with a secret!), and the ways that man and beast have adapted to them.
The next piece was a quirky bit of shadowplay called The Transformation. This kinder, cuter Kafka is an excerpt from the group’s full-length work Shadowland.
We see the silhouette of a woman lying down on the ground. A giant silhouetted arm reaches down from above. The fingers of a Brobdingnagian hand rouse, and then poke, prod and tickle her. I was reminded of the beleaguered mother-with-infant in the opening sequence of 1973’s animated sci-fi masterpiece La Planète sauvage, compared to whom the protagonist here (arguably) fares better . . . the giant umbral hand molds her into a dog (a full-bodied variant of the hand shadow-puppet we all made as kids), and then into a woman-with-dog-head chimera.
The man attached to the hand lowers himself to her level, then hands her a hobo’s bindle. He departs (his silhouette seeming to step over the top of the floor-to-ceiling screen), and thus sends his canine creation, on her own, off into the world . . .
During the next scene change, we were treated to Anthony Cerniello’s Danielle, a gently discomfiting meditation on aging.
A young Asian girl stares at us, framed head-on in close-up, against a white background and a sonic backdrop of pulsing, dynamic, electronic drones. She blinks, but her expression never changes; her gaze never falters. Over the next five minutes, she ages some sixty years in what is carefully assembled to look like a single unbroken shot.
Our mortality processional is arguably conveyed as non-threatening—the titular character retains the same calm, anodyne stare throughout the piece. Yet, while the fact of Danielle’s gradual aging is apparent, we never seem to notice “when” it actually happens. Like our own eventual ripening, hers just sneaks up on us.
During the brief intermission, two audience members were brought up on stage to help construct a wooden box to be used in [esc], a collaboration with Penn & Teller.
While a presumably pre-recorded Penn Jillette narrated the proceedings (peppered with TSA-themed humor), troupe members carried out a series of modern-day Houdini-inspired escapes. One was heavily duct-taped to a chair; another folded and bound into a fakir-like pose then zipped up inside a duffel bag with a set of pajamas that he somehow managed to change into before freeing himself from his nylon confines; two men, festooned with ‘light B&D’ leather thongs, had their arms wrapped around each other (and a thirteen-foot high pole) then hand-and-footcuffed. In each instance, the dancers’ physical power and bodily control enabled them to break free in suitably dramatic fashion, while Jillette’s ever-present-circus-barker commentary ensured that the tension was consistently ratcheted as they performed their [esc]apes. Although I guessed the role of the audience-built box about a minute into the piece, I gasped no less strongly than anyone else at the piece’s concluding sleight-of-body switcheroo.
The evening’s final performance, Rushes, involved six dancers and twelve chairs, initially arranged in a center-stage circle. Are we viewing a waiting room? The deck of a ship (as suggested by unidentified water sounds)? A psyche ward? An old age home? The mind of one of the characters?
Some dancers were seated in chairs, while others leapt in to the proceedings from off-stage. With slapstick precision, three men (one of whom might have been dressed as a captain/conductor) lifted, carried, threw and halted each other… combining briefly into a working clock mechanism, then into a human seesaw… and generally cavorted about like an alternate Three Stooges comprised solely of Buster Keatons. Meanwhile, two women engaged in synchronized watching/catching of the aforementioned trio, as one man clutching an old suitcase shuffled slowly along, hunchbacked and flat-footed, at the periphery of the activity. Jaunty dixieland music played in the background, setting a mood akin to the final seconds of the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera.
The initial carnivalesque mood took a darker turn as we followed the man with the suitcase through a number of oneiric and corporeal scenes (the musical accompaniment now included music by Miles Davis, and Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel).
The cast traversed the stage, the chairs alternating as scenery, props and dancing partners. The characters acted out various melancholy tableaux on the dimly-lit stage (seemingly lit by a single light bulb, suspended on a wire from the ceiling)… searching for, dragging along and rejecting one another. This was a dark, populated-but-lonely world, like an Edward Hopper painting crossed with the Twilight Zone’s Five Characters in Search of an Exit (sans cylindrical enclosure).
In one of the evening’s most memorable turns, the man with the suitcase—once the physically compromised outsider, now standing proudly upright—cradled and carried a woman while walking, stately and proudly, along the tops of the chairs. As he strode, others formed a two-man bucket brigade, one passing the last chair in the row to another who placed it just ahead of the man’s next footfall. Had the man blossomed from ugly duckling to virile swan? Or was this merely a Walter Mitty-esque fantasy?
As the woman who he so heroically carried reached up and extinguished the light bulb, we are left wondering which sad reality the darkness describes—was this the end of a dream, or the dreamer?
I left the theater feeling entertained and elated; aroused and contemplative; exhausted and envigorated. Next year’s program can’t come quickly enough . . . . .