writers on dancing


Pilobolus: Recent Works

"Megawatt," "Wedlock," "Symbiosis," Star-Cross'd"
Pilobolus Dance Theatre
Joyce Theater
New York, NY
July 8, 2004

By Susan Reiter
copyright © 2004 by Susan Reiter
published July 11, 2004

While the other two programs of the current Pilobolus season are anchored by works that have by now become golden oldies ("Untitled," from 1975, and "Day Two," from 1980), this one is very much about the Pilobolus of the here and now, since all four works were from 2001 or later. What emerged from this present-day portrait was an intriguing mix of styles and approaches; it was varied evening free of what one might consider classic Pilobolean antics—gymnastic displays that featured jokey, mildly naughty shapes made by bodies playfully joined in surprising ways, or surreal, quasi-narratives While elements of gymnastics, acrobatics, yoga and even aerobics contribute to the movement, these were pieces with attitude and/or a theatrical motivation.

Jonathan Wollken's new "Megawatt" (as always, in Pilobolus programs the primary choreographer is credited "in collaboration" with" the work's original cast members) is a rough and tumble, Generation X-flavored explosion of fierce energy, with much of the movement on or close to the floor. The full company enters together from stage right, inching along their backs, bobbing smoothly as though this was just another method of locomotion. The stage is an arena, outlined in double strips of pale green light, with the center area violet blue, that seems to send extra voltage into their bodies, so highly charged is their intensely physical activity.

The musical selections—by Primus, Radiohead and Squarepusher—are loud and raucous, and the dancers' casual clothes and black wristbands make them resemble kids ready to go out skateboarding. Is this Pilobolus, which evolved from and embodied the spirit of the flower-child era, aggressively staking its claim to the current youth market? It's exciting, wild and full of physical daring carried out with nonchalance. The partnering often pairs a dancer on the ground with one who is standing. At one point Renee Jaworski is held by the hand and undulates through an arc than ends with her sitting on her back; it almost looks cruel. Overall, the tone, is tough, rough and frenetically energized, and the movement, with its clambering, scuttling, bouncing and the occasional dive into the floor, is a fierce workout. During the final moments, the dancers lurch their way downstage and bob uneasily as they stand in a line facing the audience, breathing heavily. There's a sense of defiant triumph in their having achieved full verticality after maneuvering around at every other possible level and angle.

It is always impressive and fascinating to see how Pilobolus, which has never altered the four-man, two-women makeup of its roster, maximizes the possibilities of what a six-member ensemble can accomplish. Certain patterns emerge—the use of two trios, with each woman supported by two guys, or the three-couple format, with the two "extra" guys linking up. But they manage to do a lot with a little, such as in Jonathan Wolken's 2003 "Wedlock," a series of eight brief, oddball duets set to varied short compositions by David Darling, each presenting the portrait of a relationship in miniature.

Some had a Margitte-like air, offering an intriguing question-mark of a duo, like the one in which Jaworski and one of the men, she in a black sheath and he in a dark suit, stood at opposite sides of the stage, each holding in their mouths one end of what appeared to be a length of elastic string. He gradually "ate" his way towards her, then disgorged much of the string in the manner of Martha Graham's Medea vomiting up the red cord of jealousy. With the string back in his mouth, they managed an extended kiss, as if the encumbrance did not exist, and when they separated, she blew a bubble.

In an earlier duet, Jaworski looked like a giddy mad housewife freed from her kitchen. Wearing a black bra, apron and rubber gloves, she "rode" on the back of Mark Fucik, who was on all fours. She repeatedly kicked his rear as though he was a reluctant pack animal, and generally treated him like her slave, ultimately stuffing her gloves in his mouth. A more even give-and-take was depicted in the opening duet, in which the couple held each other at arm's length and explored the possibilities of centrifugal force as they leaned back a turned. A couple in the throes of an unknown terror and grief was portrayed by Jaworski and Manelich Minniefee. She lay on her side, tensely shuddering, and became rigid at his slightest touch, her mouth a gaping "O." She briefly curled up in his lap, seeking comfort, until he slumped to the ground and assumed her earlier position, shuddering helplessly as she calmly backed away into darkness.

The two all-male duets were brief studies of competition and aggressiveness, one ending in a casual "why-not" gesture of male bonding. And the closing section of "Wedlock" was whimsical but vague, as a working-class pair spun a plate on the floor, until it vanished under the woman's skirt and gave her an instant pregnancy belly. Others, including men, wandered in with their own padded tummies, as tough the condition was contagious, but the fantasy is brought down to earth as one big-bellied guy raises as beer bottle and takes a swig, and his "pregnancy" becomes just another beer belly.

"Symbiosis," a 2001 duet by Michael Tracy in collaboration with Jaworksi and Otis Cook, is now performed by Jaworski and Fucik, and it is the program's purest example of what one might call classic Pilobolus. After a flash of light and the sound of thunder, the duo is discovered on the ground—are they the only survivors of some catastrophe? Accompanied by an evocative selection of contemporary music performed by the Kronos Quartet, they link up for a provocative and highly sensual encounter, complete with amazing feats of leverage and balance. She seems able to sit or stand on—or lie across—any part of his body, always moving with a preternatural calm. The work exemplifies an interesting duality often found in Pilobolus' more pure-movement works exploring unusual ways for bodies to link up, the activity seems to operate on two levels: as an abstract blend of gymnastics and acrobatics forged into novel configurations, and as a highly erotic display of flesh meeting flesh.

Alison Chase's contribution to the program, "Star-Cross'd." (2003) reflects her ongoing fascination with aerial movement and dancers suspended in space. The stunning opening moments featured five seemingly nude dancers (they wear bodystockings) suspended on swaths of black fabric, with Jennifer Macavinta clinging to the bottom of one of the lengths of fabric. In the rosy light, the bodies glowed sensuously. If the title alludes to "Romeo and Juliet," the connection to the play escaped me, although the final image could be seen as an aerial version of two lovers clinging together in death. The dancers' freedom and fluidity as they navigated through lifts and connections while spending much of the time off the ground created a hypnotic world of intrigue, with an edge of danger. In the course of the evening, those six hard-working bodies had worked their way from insect-like terrestrial scuttling to arrive ultimately in a celestial arena.

Originally published:
Volume 2, No. 26
July 12, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Susan Reiter


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