Little did Art Spiegelman know he didn’t really have much of a choice when asked to collaborate on a dance: He’d been Pilobolized.
That’s what members of Pilobolus, the nearly 40-year-old modern dance company named for a sort of fungus, called it when they’d barnstorm into a room and try to convince someone to work with them. About a year-and-a-half ago, a contingent from Pilobolus showed up at Spiegelman’s Soho studio to win over the world-famous comic book artist, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus graphic novels, to collaborate with them on a new dance.
“It seemed like a reasonable way to try to wake up,” explains the 62-year-old Spiegelman, concerning the visitors. “I don’t really get my day going early, and they seemed so friendly. I met with them and after a while they came back. And I got used to them. They became a presence rather than a proposition. Then after I saw Dog•id, I said yes.”
The group that arrived on Spiegelman’s doorstop included Michael Tracy, a founding artistic director and choreographer, and Pilobolus executive director Itamar Kubovy. They had been discussing for years whom to work with as part of their international Collaborators Project. “Art was incredibly fascinating,” explains Kubovy. “He’s someone who thinks about how he works, and in fact works, in a completely different way.”
They’d already worked with children’s book illustrator Maurice Sendak years earlier and later with Israeli choreographic team Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak. the collaboration with puppeteer Basil twist in 2008 jump-started the idea of incorporating shadows into the work. Although the group was already receiving attention (and criticism) for its car commercials and 2007 Academy Awards “interpretive” dance, the most untraditional may have been the collaboration with Steve Banks, a head writer on SpongeBob SquarePants, which resulted in Dog•id (now re-titled The Transformation). For many, it was a new direction for a dance company that had become predictable with its particular brand of physical humor and optical illusions. With the death last month of Jonathan Wolken, another founder and artistic director, it also seems to be a pivotal moment for the company’s future.
Spiegelman describes the shadows he saw onstage during Dog•id as a “protocinematic entertainment experience” that he was interested in exploring. He recalled seeing an opera with the supertitles projected above the singers’ heads, which made him think of a comic strip’s thought bubbles: “I loved the idea of speech balloons above shadow heads.”
During their early encounters, Spiegelman showed the group sketchbooks that McSweeney’s had published, which included a lot of noir comics and movie imagery. “He took us through several meetings to make sure we didn’t want a dancing mouse,” says Tracy.
“When someone approaches me about a collaboration, my radar is up: ‘they want to ruin my book,’” says Spiegelman. the artist says he doesn’t feel Maus should be adapted to another medium since the story is so inextricably tied to the making of comics. He did attempt a musical theater/ opera piece based on another idea about 16 years ago, but the experience left a bad taste in his mouth.
Spiegelman’s dark, sarcastic humor and style may not seem like a logical match for a group whose most popular current work involves a sort-of makeshift waterslide on stage. this week, however, Pilobolus premieres Hapless Hooligan in ‘Still Moving’ in New York during its annual four-week residency at the Joyce theater. it’s a pastiche of early 20th-century comic strips inspired by Happy Hooligan and Lulu, utilizing multimedia projections, shadows and, of course, live dancers. it’s not a simple narrative, although it does focus on male and female characters, Hapless Hooligan and lulu, who find each other, are torn apart and then have a torturous experience until their dying end. Oh, and there will be dancing skeletons.
The world premiere of the work took place last month at Dartmouth College. it caused New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay to remark: “Neither at Pilobolus nor anywhere else have i seen this kind of dizzying overlap of cartoon, film, silhouette theater and live dance.”
It wasn’t easy going, however. When Spiegelman initially showed up at Pilobolus’ Connecticut studio in december 2009, he says he was interested in large projections that the dancers would be behind and in front of. “I had such naive ideas,” he says. “It wasn’t panning out. I was making literal compositions, and i was kind of surprised: they kept moving into the black areas of my drawings and they would get lost.” Often he would try to make the dancers stand still, to make them two-dimensional, so he could move them like a cartoon. But Spiegelman is a heavy smoker, so the dancers would wait until he was out of the room so they could do their own thing. “He spent the winter standing outside our studio having a smoke,” says Tracy. “And peering in the windows to see how radically we’d changed it while he smoked a cigarette.”
The breakthrough moment occurred after a long, grueling day of trial and error. Spiegelman had been using a Wacom tablet, a device that is like an elaborate computer mouse that allows you to draw, and he still had it in his hand when the dancers started to improvise and move around. “It was at the end of the day, when the dancers were frustrated because i was making them stand still,” explains Spiegelman. “They needed to move, so they put on some music. it was really sexy. I started making splashes of color, graffiting with the Wacom pad. I felt like I was a dancer and not trying to make a cartoon. it had a conversational aspect to it.” It was during this improvisational moment—drawings done live—that Spiegelman realized that it wasn’t about the dancers standing still; rather, his cartoons were going to have to “build something,” and the drawings were animated by Dan Abdo and Jason Patterson.
Choreographer Michael tracy describes it as an almost metaphysical happenstance. “It gave us several layers of meaning and reality that we were able to play with,” he says. “It was as if some scientist had given us the algorithm to open up two more dimensions. It’s as if we were one-dimensional and now, we were suddenly three dimensions. The other dimensions were explained… We were living in a cartoon.”
Spiegelman says he kept apologizing to the dancers because he was asking for a type of precision, to interact with the animations that he felt was practically inhuman. “It’s like dancing with an idiot dancer. They can’t be off one inch. When it doesn’t work it’s disappointing, but how amazing when it does work.”
Pilobolus performs three programs in repertory through Aug. 7. The Joyce Theater, 175 8th Ave., 212-242-0800; Mon.-Wed., 7:30; Thurs.- Fri., 8; Sat., 2 & 8, $10 .