Joyce Theater, New York, NY

Program A (July 16, 2014): On the Nature of Things, The Transformation, Rushes, [esc], Licks
Program B (July 17, 2014): The Inconsistent Pedaler, All Is Not Lost, Korokoro, Masters of Ceremony, Megawatt

Jerry Hochman

Pilobolus in 'The Nature of Things' (here with Mike Tyus, Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern and Erica Jimbo - and in black costumes). Photo © Robert Whitman 2

Pilobolus in ‘The Nature of Things’ (here with Mike Tyus, Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern and Erica Jimbo – and in black costumes).
Photo © Robert Whitman

Pilobolus is an institution. 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 across cow dung) to nearby grass to be ingested by passing herbivores, thereby continuing its life cycle, Pilobolus, the company, has propelled itself into the performing arts/dance firmament, spawned offshoots, survived the loss of many of its original spores, and now has descendants all over the globe. Its reach has extended far beyond replicating its own name. One can see its influences, directly or indirectly, on artists who span the choreographic spectrum. And it has done all this while still entertaining audiences with audacious examples of performance creativity.

Initially, Pilobolus focused on creating curious interactions among its performers that relied upon 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 shape shifting while continuing the mutual interdependence among its dancers that has characterized it since its founding.

Now 43 years old, Pilobolus is approaching middle age – a time when many companies, like humans, might begin to slow down. Based on the two programs danced during its annual summer residency at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea, however, one wouldn’t generally notice any diminished energy level among the dancers, or diminished sense that the company is stuffing enough images into one evening’s performance to fill a computer’s hard drive. But where some diminution of choreographic focus might be noticeable is in this year’s two New York premieres: “On the Nature of Things,” which opened the program I saw on Wednesday, and “The Inconsistent Pedaler,” which opened Thursday’s program.

'The Nature of Things' (again, here with Mike Tyus, Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern and Erica Jimbo).  Photo © Robert Whitman

‘The Nature of Things’ (again, here with Mike Tyus, Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern and Erica Jimbo).
Photo © Robert Whitman

“On the Nature of Things” is somewhat retro in that it is remindful of other Pilobolus pieces I can recall seeing, but with an updated edge. One dancer, Nile Russell, enters carrying another, Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern, across his shoulder. The first deposits the second onto a circular platform (approximately 5 feet diagonally), and the two interact. The first dancer leaves, then returns with a third dancer, Eriko Jimbo, sprawled across his shoulder, and he deposits her on the platform. Eventually all three interact in what seems to be a competition for the first dancer’s attention, then the second and third dancers fall to opposite sides of the platform, and the first stands atop the platform, alone.

There is no emoting in the piece, nor any apparent underlying ‘meaning’ – although to the extent any ‘meaning’ is intended, perhaps it can be derived from the title: some reference to it being the ‘nature of things’ for one person to be attracted to both sexes. But other than what I’ve described, there’s nothing to support that. All that is really present in the piece, visually, is the incredible balance and strength that each of the dancers demonstrates in the course of the spatially confined contortions. The added edge is that each of the dancers is clad in minimal bottom ‘nude-colored’ underwear (sort of a mini-bikini bottom), and nothing else, and the contortions require considerable physical contact among the dancers, including in areas where such contact is usually avoided. But for a piece that appears to be sexual, there’s nothing erotic about it. It’s just two sets of relationships (or one ‘threesome’), matter-of-fact contact, and an end to both. I admired each of the three dancers’ performance skills, and found the piece to be intriguing, but not particularly memorable.

“The Inconsistent Pedaler” is more problematic. It’s a confusing collection of images that only makes sense if you ignore most of them, or decide that they’re all figments of one character’s imagination – an alternative that doesn’t really fit. There is this old man (played skillfully, and serio-comically by Mr. Ahern) confined to some ‘place’ (a nursing home; a room in his own home, whatever), and a 99th birthday party for him attended by family (including Mr. Russell as a diaper-clad baby) and assorted hangers-on. We know it’s a 99th birthday party because a sign to that effect hangs over the birthday-boy’s chair. After a lot of feigned celebratory effort, and perhaps because of it, the old man dies. We know he’s dead because his head suddenly slumps over, and this little balloon, presumably representing his ‘life force’, is released from behind where the old man sits and rises up and away. Among the other characters is a woman (Jordan Kriston) who rides a stationary bicycle at varying speeds – perhaps she’s the ‘inconsistent pedaler’ of the title, and perhaps the stationary bike being pedaled is supposed to represent the old man’s heart (perhaps pumped artificially), which stops when the pedaling stops. Another pedaler briefly enters the stage and assumes the pedaling function, bringing the old man briefly to life, but that pedaling stops too. None of this makes any coherent sense.

If this piece (like most of Pilobolus’ works, choreographed and assembled by committee) is supposed to be a commentary on the futility of growing old and being subjected to dutiful but meaningless ‘celebrations’ by family members who are doing what they feel obligated to do, it succeeds. But the point, whatever it is, is not clearly made, and even on a purely physical (non-thematic) level, except for Mr. Ahern, it’s visually dull. In a remote, desultory way, some may consider it ‘touching’ – I considered it boring.

Pilobolus' 'The Inconsistent Pedaler' (here with Jordan Kriston and Derion Loman).  Photo © Robert Whitman

Pilobolus’ ‘The Inconsistent Pedaler’ (here with Jordan Kriston and Derion Loman).
Photo © Robert Whitman

But the remainder of both programs compensated for each of the opening pieces. “The Transformation”, a duet of sorts created in 2009, followed “On the Nature of Things” on Wednesday’s program. An excerpt from the company’s landmark work “Shadowplay”, it is a study of silhouettes and lighting, but it’s much more than that. It’s a depiction of a young girl’s transformation (as in ‘transformers’), in a dream, perhaps, but it’s much more than that too. With music by David Poe and lighting by Neil Peter Jampolis it’s an exceptional piece of theater, and the performances of Ms. Jimbo and Mr. Russell did it justice. In summary, the silhouette of Mr. Russell’s hand interacts with the silhouette of Ms. Jimbo, poking her into different shapes (as they appear from behind the curtain), including headless, and as a dog, but it’s all part of the girl’s ‘real’ transformation – presumably to adulthood. It’s one of those works of performance art that’s both brilliant and entertaining (as well as brief and to the point).

“Rushes”, a 2007 piece, is also brilliant and entertaining – but more complex and more difficult to describe. On the surface, it’s an unfocused collection of images. But this is one of those rare pieces where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It works because it looks like a surreal study of a community – people confined to living in a relatively small ‘stage’ circle, and most often sitting on, or moving, or rearranging chairs – in which things happen, even though the things that happen are strange. The use of multimedia is impressive, as is the overall sense of ominous compulsion combined with nightmarish beauty. Ms. Jimbo, Ms. Kriston, Mr. Ahern, Mr. Russell, Matt Del Rosario, and Jun Kuribayashi were the extraordinary performers.

Pilobolus routinely collaborates with other artists to expand the breadth of its programs. Last year, it collaborated with Penn & Teller to create “[esc]” (‘esc’ being the computer key for ‘escape’). I’m not sure whether I would describe it as a dance (as opposed to a strung-together series of Houdini-esq escapes), but it doesn’t matter. And I don’t know how the performers escape from confinement, in full audience view. But that doesn’t matter either. However it’s categorized, it’s entertaining theater.

The final dance on Wednesday’s program was “Licks”, a 2013 piece that is very fast, and very loud. Although the patterning of the wave-like paraphernalia that the performers manipulated and danced in-and-around was interesting (they look like ‘noodles’ used as floats in swimming pools, except each spanned the width of the stage, was flexible – like a jump rope, though thicker – and sounded like a whip when it hit another object). The energy level was off the charts.

Following “The Inconsistent Pedaler,” Program B continued with “All Is Not Lost,” a 2011 co-creation by Pilobolus dancers, OK Go (a rock video group), and Trish Sie. Here the curiosity isn’t the creativity that can take place behind a curtain from the perspective of being in front of the curtain, as in “The Transformation”. Rather, it’s the creativity that can take place in two stage dimensions at once: on a platform on which the performers stretch horizontally facing the audience, or at times stand atop, or at times a combination of the two; and on a screen set up stage right of the platform, onto which the performers’ images are transmitted by a camera that sits underneath the platform on which the dancers are moving, transferring the horizontal images picked up by the underlying camera to upright, vertical images seen by the audience on the screen. And while the horizontal view of the dancers looks like a hodgepodge of movement, the vertical image on the screen is carefully choreographed and executed (which of course means that the movement on the platform is carefully choreographed and executed). It’s another example of brilliant and entertaining theater, even if, ultimately, it was only a living kaleidoscope.

“Korokoro”, also created in 2011, lacks the inventiveness of “All Is Not Lost”. A collaboration with Takuya Muramatsu of Dairakudakan (a Butoh company), Renee Jaworski and Michael Tracy, “Korokoro” returns to Pilobolus basics, with body contortions, tumbling, and outstanding partnering, but with an overriding primitive, tribal element. This could be seen as an entertainment contrived by natives on an African savannah, but to me ‘contrived’ is the operative word. I could admire the dancers’ talents, but did not particularly like the dance.

“Masters of Ceremony” is a quirky little piece, created in 1995, for two dancers. Here it was performed by Pilobolus alumni, Associate Artistic Directors Renee Jaworski and Matt Kent. In essence, Mr. Kent is a human animal, tethered by leash (like an oversized toddler) to his ‘trainer’, Ms. Jaworski. On the surface, the couple are performers, putting on a show – like a circus act. But perhaps the show itself is the show, and what this piece really is doing is commenting on a personal relationship, one person dominant, one submissive, as that relationship is shown, partially concealed and excused, to the outside world.  Regardless, there was more characterization on display in this dance (appropriately) then was evident in all of the other pieces on the two programs. Although it has limited appeal, I enjoyed the performances greatly.

The second program ended with “Megawatt”, a Pilobolus signature piece that, as should be apparent from the title, displays the dancers in non-stop movement, as if each dancer was energized by being in a force field of lights. The 2004 piece, choreographed by one of the company’s original members, Jonathan Wolken, in collaboration with former company dancers at that time, the piece is a showcase of frenetic movement. Even though I frequently found it to be over the top (particular when certain dancers moved as if they’d been electrocuted), it was a great way to send the audience home electrified.

Each of these programs, beginning to end, was prepared and performed in full view of the audience – there’s no curtain. Between pieces, while the stage is reset, brief films were shown to keep everyone entertained. They included “Pilobolus is a Fungus” (edited by Oriel Pe’er and Paula Salhany), an up-close-and-personal examination of a pilobolus fungus; “Danielle” (by Anthony Cerniello), which cinematically watches its subject’s face age over time; “Wind” (directed by Robert Lobel), and “Explosions (by Dumt & Farligt). “Explosions” is contrived, but fun to watch (objects – a watermelon; a soda can; a waterbed – were ‘exploded’, in slow motion, by contact from another object – a needle; a bullet). “Wind” is a fabulous little film of subtle humor that attested to nothing more than the imagination and skill of its creators – much like Pilobolus and its dances.