For those of us who were around when Pilobolus—an ensemble
of imaginative collegiate free spirits founded at Dartmouth who explored the
possibilities of linked bodies in clever, often sexy ways—was new on the scene,
it’s hard to accept that this feisty ensemble is now middle-aged. But the
troupe has hit the ripe age of 40. The one-time renegade bunch now proudly
identifies itself in a program note as “a stable and influential force in the
world of dance.” The passing of time has indeed made Pilobolus Dance Theatre
(to use its full, official name) an institution—and kudos to them for
weathering the dance world’s cyclical ups and downs over four decades. As a
further sign of middle age, they’ve even, sadly, endured the loss of one member
of that creative first generation—Jonathan Wolken, who died last year at 60.
Their annual four-week season at the Joyce is a mainstay of the summer dance
calendar, and once again they are back with three programs, each featuring a
Collaboration has long been the Pilobolus modus operandi,
with the creative credit for each dance often going not just to a choreographer
(or two) but to the original cast of dancers. Improvisation and a spirit of
free play is crucial to their process, and the results were often marked by a
sense of spontaneous discovery, with bodies shaped and manipulated to create
surprising, revelatory effects. In recent years, their focus on collaboration
has expanded as they developed works with artists from other disciplines or
from very different areas of the dance world. These have ranged from Maurice
Sendak to Art Spiegelman to Steven Banks. Some of the resulting pieces have
revealed an admirable meeting of the minds (A Selection, the Sendak collaboration, was a highlight), but
more recent ones have taken a concept or gimmick and stretched it far too thin.
The distinctive focus and imaginative precision that marked earlier Pilobolus
works was too often lacking.
All of this season’s premieres (one on each of the three
alternating programs) represent such collaborations. Korokoro was created with Takuya Muramatsu, choreographer of
the Japanese company Dairakudakan, while in All Is Not Lost Pilobolus has joined forces with the band OK Go.
Perhaps their most unlikely collaboration is with MIT’s Computer Science and
Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, which resulted in Seraph—a trio for a male dancer and two airborne robots.
Matt del Rosario, with his long, flowing hair, wearing only a thong, seems to
embody Natural Man as he enters the darkened stage with a small flashlight
attached to one hand, seemingly sending out signals in the hope of
communication. He encounters the first of the two whizzing, buzzing X-shaped
creatures, flashing blue lights, with initial wariness, even fear. After some
mutual exploration, man and robot seem to reach an understanding, but just then
a second robot—red lights flashing angrily—swoops in from the wings like a
jealous lover. Further standoffs, then cooperation, ensue. The alliances shift
and evolve, supported by the appropriately rhythmic and dramatic accompaniment
of Schubert’s gorgeous Andante from his Trio No. 2 in E Flat, a good choice.
Rosario’s role is mainly reactive as the inanimate, yet
highly animated robots soar and dip, operated from offstage by MIT students
William Selby and Daniel Soltero. They are part of the large collaborative team
of MIT and Pilobolus personnel who created Seraph, which has a gentle charm but probably would not gain much on repeated
While the season is not billed as a retrospective, at least
one work from the 1970s is included on each program. Also on Program 3 with Seraph is Shizen,
a meditative, sensual 1978 duet by Alison Chase set to a hauntingly simple
flute score by Riley Lee. Performed with riveting focus by Jordan Kriston and
Nile Russell, it is an eloquent example of the troupe’s early work, and can be
seen as a template for much that came afterwards. Chase, one of the first two
women to join Pilobolus and one of its artistic directors for over two decades,
is also represented on this program by Tu-Ku-Tsu, a slightly overextended 2000 work set to intense
percussion. Ritualistic and ceremonial at the start, it develops into a
showcase for a variety of duets in which the dancer’s ability to clamber and
balance on, over and around one another’s bodies, is amazing to behold.
Through Aug. 6, Joyce Theater, 175 8th Ave. (at W. 19th St.),
www.joyce.org; $10 & up.