The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
July 19 evening, 2023
Program B: On the Nature of Things, Walklyndon, Awaken Heart (world premiere), Untitled, Behind the Shadows, Sweet Purgatory
There’s little one can say about Pilobolous that hasn’t already been said. Founded in 1971 by a group of students at Dartmouth College, over the ensuing decades the company has accomplished what few performing arts groups that primarily generate their own repertory have: it has endured. Much like the fungus from which it derives its name, which propels progeny with strength and accuracy (albeit from its home base – cow dung) to nearby grass to be ingested by passing herbivores, thereby continuing its life cycle when the cows do what cows do, the company long-ago propelled itself into the performing arts/dance firmament. Over the years it’s had spin-offs and imitators, but Pilobolus is the original.
I’ve seen and reviewed the company previously, and its brand of adventurous, highly physical, sometimes controversial, visually inventive, and always fascinating contemporary dance is justifiably celebrated, and its current set of programs at the Joyce, under the overall rubric “Big-Five-OH!,” is icing on its 50th Anniversary cake. These performances are the culmination of the company’s year-long celebratory tour.
From its outset, Pilobolus focused on creating curious interactions among its performers that relied on weight-shifting and astonishing bodily strength and control, and which enabled them to display moving sculptural shapes that seemed impossible. Concurrently, the company integrated broad stage-spanning movement, a sort of kinetic gymnastics, adding speed and wit to the sculptural shape shifting while continuing the mutual interdependence among its dancers that has characterized it since its founding.
During its current run, which continues through July 30th, eleven dances are divided between two distinct programs. I had planned to attend both programs, but for a variety of reasons I was limited to one: Program B, which I saw on the company’s July 19th evening performance. This program consisted of six of the dances – On the Nature of Things, Walklyndon, Awaken Heart, Untitled (that’s the title), Behind the Shadows, and Sweet Purgatory – and span the company’s history from some representatives from its early years (although they’ve been updated to conform to input from current dancers and artistic directors) through to the present.
The only piece that I had difficulty getting into was the most current one – Awaken Heart – which had its NYC premiere the previous night. But given the company’s usually high batting average, I suspect the problem I had with it, which I’ll try to elaborate on below, was mine rather than the company’s.
I’ll consider each Program B dance in program order.
The evening opened with a bang. On the Nature of Things had its NYC premiere in 2014, and is the only piece in this program that I’ve previously seen and reviewed (following its 2014 Joyce season). As was the case then, I’m of two minds about it. There’s no question that the piece is an excellent example of “old-style” Pilobolus weight-shifting, balance, and sculptural body formations, with a somewhat prurient component: that is, there’s close physical contact, and the three dancers (two men; one woman) perform wearing only minimal nude-colored bottom underwear (like bikini bottoms).
Given the passage of time since I reviewed it, some brief synopsis is in order. One dancer, Derion Loman, enters carrying another, Zack Weiss, across his shoulder, and deposits him onto a circular platform (approximately 5 feet diagonally). Loman then leaves the stage, returning shortly thereafter with a third dancer, Hannah Klinkman, sprawled across his shoulder, who he deposits on the platform on top of Weiss. Eventually all three interact in what seems to be a competition for attention. Klinkman subsequently leaves the platform and reclines on the stage floor, followed by Weiss to the opposite side of the stage floor (each roughly ten feet from the platform), leaving Loman standing alone atop the platform.
If there’s a meaning or underlying narrative to this, it’s flimsy – maybe an illustration of a three-way competition for attention. But there’s nothing to support this beyond the costumes, such as they are, and the close-contact movement: nothing overtly erotic, or even sensual (none of the dancers express any emotional response to what they’re doing). Klinkman stands on Weiss’s chest briefly, but that’s hardly an enticing position. Rather, the piece seems an exercise in body balance, strength, and moving sculptural forms – but then, why the costumes? Ergo my confusion as to what the piece’s purpose, if there is any, is.
It’s possible to concoct something profound about On the Nature of Things: maybe a creation myth visual allegory or a revisionist Adam and Eve. But I saw nothing to support either of those theories, unless one considers the character here played by Loman to be a God, or some sort of heavenly messenger – something akin to an ultra-serious Puck who transports and arranges the positioning of bodies on demand (and everytime a life is created a bell rings and an angel gets admitted to heaven). Loman’s character does do all the heavy lifting and carting, and in the dance’s final image, does look upward toward … something. But if this were the case, the last image of the “Adam and Eve” characters have them separated as if by some unbridgeable distance; hardly a representation of some fountain of humanity. Even my usual over-thinking can’t find sufficient support in the dance for such theory. In the end, though, it doesn’t much matter.
While the dance’s underlying meaning, if any, is unclear, there’s no similar confusion with respect to the dancers’ capabilities. Their strength and dexterity are omnipresent qualities that, more than any possible nebulous intent, dominate this dance.
Walklyndon is a very different type of dance, and reflects contribution by four of the company’s co-founders: Moses Pendleton, Alison Chase, Robby Barnett, and Jonathan Wolkin. As relatively static as On the Nature of Things is, Walklyndon is the opposite. Essentially, each of the company’s six dancers (Nathaniel Buchsbaum, Quincy Ellis, Marlon Feliz, Klinkman, Loman and Weiss) individually cross the stage sequentially from opposite wings. At the outset, they just walk in horizontal lines at various levels upstage to downstage, looking somewhat silly (intentionally) in Kitty Daly’s intentionally riotous costumes. Then their cross-stage paths change and they start bumping into each other in escalating degrees of contact, as well as escalating degrees of humor – bumping heads, getting stepped on, etc. It’s all quite funny – not really slapstick, but more like a sort of audience guilty pleasure at seeing performers knock themselves out – and quite skillfully executed, though those qualities appear to be the piece’s only objectives.
Unlike the program’s previous dance, Awaken Heart wears its seriousness on its sleeve. Choreographed to an unidentified score by Michael Wall, a prolific New York-area based musician, composer, and teacher, Awaken Heart has an overall somber note although the movement varies from reasonably fast-paced to as slow as a slow-motion memory, and to me is somewhat emotionally ponderous.
Some of Awaken Heart is certainly lovely to watch, and the choreography is more unusual looking because it integrates examples of body balance and weight shifting. Nevertheless, as an entirety this piece is perplexing. It’s a look back – and to some extent a look forward (the piece ends, at least from my viewpoint, with both pairs of dancers appearing to look one way, then the other) – but it doesn’t really say anything clearly.
Perhaps, given the dance’s title and as alluded to above, the dance is “about” awakened relationship memories. However, if that’s so, the awakening isn’t particularly pleasurable even if the specific memory awakened is supposed to have been (and is portrayed that way, with lifts that connote pleasant times that have passed). I suppose that there’s a difference between nostalgia and memories, with the former being a pleasing recollection, the latter being potentially melancholy, or even painful, depending on subsequent developments.
If I have an opportunity to see Awaken Heart a second time perhaps it’ll leave a clearer impression. Regardless, the four dancers – Buchsbaum, Feliz, Klinkman, and Weiss – performed admirably.
Untitled, like Walklyndon a product of the company’s relatively early years, is another clever hoot.
As the curtain opens, Feliz and Klinkman appear to be enjoying the country air and/or out for a picnic. The time period, judged by their dresses, appears to be no later than turn-of-the-century. The 19th-20th Century: he dresses (costumes are by Valerie St. Pierre Smith) are gaudy, breezy, and bustled.
After a period of stage chit-chat, it becomes clear that the bustle isn’t what lurks beneath the dresses’ rear surface. The ladies suddenly grow. First a little, then like adult Alices in Wonderland. Of course, one recognizes immediately that they’re being supported, under the dresses, by others. After some minor enticement (e.g., legs appear from under the dresses, stroked by one as if petting a dog), a man fully emerges from beneath each dress. The two men wear nothing. At all.
The rest of the dance has two other men, dressed in similar turn-of-the-century attire, pay attention to (or call on) the ladies, but perhaps finding their size too much of a challenge, leave. The piece ends with the Initial two men contorting themselves into the form of a chair, and the ladies sit on them, and rock back and forth, thoroughly enjoying their independence … and domination. The piece is funny, but it’s also a commentary on male/female relationships but with the tables, and bustles and chairs, turned such that the ladies are always dominant.
Following intermission, the company presented Behind the Shadows, an all too brief dance that is a spin-off of sorts from the company’s worldwide evening-length hit of a few years ago: Shadowland. That was an enthralling, audience-pleasing piece that, while not an original idea (forming shapes behind a scrim illuminated from behind to convert the shapes projected onto the scrim into moving shadows of a variety of human, animal, and giant figures depending on the positions of the dancers and the lighting) but it was executed more comprehensively and more expansively than anything previously seen.
Behind the Shadows takes one somewhat behind the scenes of a Shadowland-like stage set, with the dancers’ visible action emanating from a small rather than stage-spanning scrim, and consequently the body-shaping to form a variety of creatures and the changing distance from lighting being is revealed to the audience as well. This piece is “inspired” by” the original, but not an excerpt or copy of it – and it’s a little more “adult.” But it’s still a delightful, and still eye-pleasing, diversion.
The program closed with Sweet Purgatory, also a product of some of the company’s founders (and others). More than the others, this 1991 dance evokes memories of Pilobolus as it was (and to a large extent remains) with respect to body sculpture, balance, and weight-shifting. That it happens to present all of it in a spellbinding array of colors and shapes, with painted costumes (designed by Lawrence Casey, painted by Martin Izquierdo Studios and constructed by Daly), all to a score by Dimitri Shostakovich (Opus 110a), creates a mesmerizing visual experience.
It also acts as an interesting program bookend. While there’s some sense of fatality, of burdens to carry, it doesn’t have the dark ambiance that permeates On the Nature of Things. On the contrary, it’s a piece that to one extent or another brings with it a sense of triumph, of overcoming. And although the emotion is not expressed, it’s apparent in the movement: a sense of camaraderie, mutual respect, and even optimism in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity. Purgatory, perhaps, but one tinged with sweetness.
Sweet Purgatory was a great way to end the program, and the standing ovation the cast received from the apparently sold-out house was well-earned.
Now led by Co-Artistic Directors Renee Jaworski and Matt Kent, each a former dancer with the company, Pilobolus still looks young even in its 50th performance year, and if turning the big 50 implies any creative grey hairs, they’re well-hidden. I’ll look forward to the continuing excellence of Pilobolus whenever the company returns to the New York area.