I recently contributed a guest review of Pilobolus: The Human Alphabet at one of my favorite blogs, Picture Books and Pirouettes.
If you want to know more about the blog and its author Kerry Aradhya, simply visit PB&P. You can also see Kerry’s guest article here at Dance Advantage – a year-in-review of dance-related picture books for 2010.
In conjunction with the review, I thought it might be fun to dig a little into Pilobolus history as well as my experiences with their work. A quaint little post on the company actually already exists way back in the Dance Advantage archives but this seemed a good time for an update.
Pilobolus Dance Theatre
In 1971 Alison Chase chose a small group of students from her beginning modern dance class to represent Dartmouth College at a symposium for modern dance in New York City. Original members of the collective that would become Pilobolus included Moses Pendleton, Jonathan Wolken, and Steve Johnson. They were later joined by Robby Barnett, Michael Tracy, and Lee Harris when Johnson graduated and went on to pursue a medical career and soon after Alison Chase and Martha Clarke became the first female members of Pilobolus.
Pilobolus first performed as the opening act for a Frank Zappa concert at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst. Though on the fringe of modern dance, the company gained recognition and acclaim for their unique collaborative approach to choreography, innovative and often acrobatic weight-sharing techniques, and humor.
Pseudopodia (1973) Choreographed by Jonathan Wolken. A tumbling tumbleweed solo set to an all-percussion score. Performed here by Pilobolus dancer Jun Kuribayashi.
If, over the last 40 years, you’ve been fortunate enough to see them live as I have, you probably understand the worldwide appeal of Pilobolus. The company’s artistic directors and dancers have managed to create “a profoundly serious artistic enterprise that has successfully reached out to a popular audience.”
They’ve inspired and paved the way for other dance companies, including the offshoot, MOMIX (founded by Pendleton and Chase), and continue as innovative leaders, expanding their artistic, educational, and commercial programs, initiatives, and collaborations.
LANTERNA MAGICA (2008) is a full company work choreographed by co-Artistic Director Michael Tracy. This work immerses us in the luminous spirit of the natural world and uses ritual and mythology to create a mysterious and irresistible sensual celebration of the supernatural.
As the educational arm of the organization The Pilobolus Institute conducts community workshops, lecture demonstrations, master classes, and performances for non-dancers, trained students, and professionals alike.
From the website: “Workshops given by the Pilobolus Institute are not training in dance but rather in methods of effective group creativity that use physical expression as their medium. We begin by eliminating preconceptions of what dance should be. We watch what is unique about every body that moves, and in doing so discover infinite forms of what is beautiful and possible.”
You can read about The Pilobolus Institute’s recent work at a school in New Haven, Connecticut at the Pilobolus Blog. See this group of boys from Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School perform their work in the video below.
Most who watch Pilobolus perform are struck by their unique and seemingly impossible feats of partnering and weight-sharing, moments where two or more dancers balance or distribute their weight between one another. Pilobolus is known for creating both still and moving body structures which are constructed with base principles of balance and counterbalance.
During my post-college teaching career, I was twice able to take a master class with former Pilobolus dancer, Mark Santillano, now a long-time faculty member at Mercyhurst College. His Pilobolus-style partnering class began with some basic get-to-know-your-partner counterbalance exercises. It’s quite possible you’ve played with these concepts before:
- Grasping the forearm of your partner (just above the wrist), begin with your bodies face to face and standing close together. Keeping the feet where they are, slowly extend the arm, bend your knees, and pull your center (between your bellybutton and sternum) away from your partner. Neither of you are balancing on your own but counterbalancing your weight so that if you were to let go, both of you would fall backward. (You can also experiment with straight legs, a sideways pull, or different holds)
- Sit back to back with a partner and slowly press into one another to rise to a standing position. Or, stand back-to-back or chest-to-chest and slowly walk the feet away from your partner, pressing the shoulders together to maintain a interdependent balance. Both of these focus on counterbalancing toward the center line of gravity, as opposed to away from it.
From there the guided experiments included creating structures that can rock and move.
- A Rocking Horse for example, begins with one dancer wrapping their arms around a partner’s pelvis and hips (the partner is bent over, bracing their shoulders against the thighs of the other). Partner One, lifts their partner’s feet off the floor just a bit and as Partner Two’s feet reach the floor again, he/she straightens enough to lift Partner One’s feet from the floor. Momentum assists the continuation of this rock back and forth and practiced dancers can even get the rocking horse to travel.
You can see some of these principles at work in the performance video of LANTERNA MAGICA above, as well as these Pilobolus dancer demonstrations:
Pilobolus Creative Services
Even if you aren’t familiar with the work of Pilobolus Dance Theatre, it’s likely you’ve seen the work of the Pilobolus organization’s commercial arm. Their Creative Services team has been meeting demands in the publishing and commercial world for top-level movement services since 1997.
They’ve produced a number of “shadow dances” in which dancers tumble, dive, and morph into everyday objects, people, and animals, appearing in numerous car commercials, on Conan O’Brien’s late night talk show, and the 79th Annual Academy Awards.
In a humorous Q&A for the Seattle Times, Pilobolus founding member and choreographer Jonathan Wolken, touches on what these opportunities have done for the company.
Let’s face it, in a single set of couple-of-minute skits … more people saw what Pilobolus could do than had seen us onstage for the entire lifetime of the company. The effect of that was nothing at first, and then the phone slowly began to ring, and now it’s quite an impressive thing. We get invitations to do all kinds of things from all over the country and all over the world. And it may not be an exact correlation, an exact result really of the Academy Awards, but frankly I would say there’s a pretty close relation.
What’s a Pilobolus, anyway?
Pilobolus is a genus of fungi that commonly grows on cow dung!
Have you seen Pilobolus Dance Theatre perform?
Participated in a workshop?
Share your Pilobolus experience in the comments and be sure to check out that book review!
Nichelle Suzanne is a writer specializing in dance and online content. She is also a dance instructor with over 20 years experience teaching in dance studios, community programs, and colleges. She began Dance Advantage in 2008, equipped with a passion for movement education and an intuitive sense that a blog could bring dancers together. As a Houston-based dance writer, Nichelle covers dance performance for Dance Source Houston, Arts+Culture Texas, and other publications. She is a leader in social media within the dance community and has presented on blogging for dance organizations, including Dance/USA. Nichelle provides web consulting and writing services for dancers, dance schools and studios, and those beyond the dance world. Read Nichelle’s posts.