Pilobolus 40th Anniversary Tour, CA

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John Sullivan
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A scene from “Untitled” performed by Pilobolus members at the American Dance Festival in Durham, NC

Pilobolus Dance Theatre 40th Anniversary Tour

Marin Center
San Rafael, Calif.
Oct. 9, 2010

Pilobolus Dance Theatre returned to San Rafael’s Marin Center as part of its 40th anniversary tour (see schedule) with two works from its early days, “Walklyndon” (1971) and “Untitled” (1975), one premiere, “Contradance” (2010), a rarely performed “Duet” (1992), and one of its foolproof pieces, “Megawatt” (2004).  As a whole, this program gives audiences a bit of a retrospective of the company’s collaborative, improvisational, creative process; its signature, naturally goofy sense of humor; in-your-face beefcakes; and the occasional brilliance that comes from this sort of creative process.  

“Untitled” might have been given this name, as it has many threads around a central gimmick that are not always clear. It begins with two coy young women dressed in long period dresses, wearing picture hats, who suddenly grow twice their size revealing masculine calves and succulent manly feet. The male dancers hidden beneath their skirts stumble and promenade the ladies around as two dandies attempt to court them. Eventually the women give birth to the beefy dancers that have supported them, as one metaphor gives birth to another and with it, the predictability of a girls-to-women theme.
In watching “Untitled,” one can’t help but imagine the novelty of its theatrics when presented in the mid-1970s. It is easy to gets a sense of its original freshness and pre-Cirque du Soleil innocence and wonder. Especially during its tender final scene, when the men the women gave birth to become their old-age rocking chairs as they rhythmically rock back and forth.
“Walklyndon” is one of the company’s very first pieces, and it also carries with it the brand of slapstick and irreverent nature Pilobolus established at its beginning. Here, dancers stream without music across the stage in one continuous line, like the moving shooting targets of a carnival game. It is silly and fast, with burps of catchy childlike choreography propelled by its own relentless momentum. In comic strip-colored gym-styled costumes, dancers walk over one another or bump into each other like amusement park bumper cars. And, like carnival cotton candy, “Walklyndon” quickly disappears in the mouth of its audience.

“Duet” was specifically revived for the company’s 40th after not being presented in almost a decade.  It is an intensely intimate, sensual exploration of two women sculpted around one another like the granite sexuality found on classicl Italian fountains. As the dancers slowly intertwine vertically, they give the impression of orbiting around each other as if in space, magnetically bound to one another. On an empty set they float and rotate, carried by their attraction and haunting medieval songs from Norway. Their unabashed proximity and very sculpted movement introduces one of the other core themes of the company’s choreography, and one if its more appealing characteristics. Curiously, considering how the company performs semi-naked in certain pieces — especially the male dancers, as in “Untitled” — it is interesting that in “Duet,” with its extremely personal physicality and sexuality, the women are clad at all.

Duet is not without tension, as affection turns into power struggles and domination, which is the least engaging of its choreography as it moves from architecture to operatic plot. Why move from attraction? Why not stay in the realm of fantasy, shape and form?

This same challenge between storytelling/theater and movement/dance largely affects the company’s most recent work, “Contradance,” which left alone to just contradancing (a.k.a.: New England folk dance, in which couples dance in two facing lines of indefinite length) would have been plenty. “Contradance” is the least interesting of the program, with two choreographers (Matt Kent and Renee Jaworski) — based on original material by four others — in collaboration with the seven dancers in it. If those numbers aren’t impressive enough, add to them teaming up with Grammy-winner music man Dan Zanes so that together they could design a piece “specifically for families…” Does that mean with less nudity and intimate intensity? Weren’t “Untitled” and “Walklyndon” already family-oriented enough, or is the assumption that families require a narrative to keep their interest?  

By comparison, the showstopper “Megawatt” — the creation of the company’s late creative genius and co-founder, Jonathan Wolken, who passed away in June – is singular in its vision, taking the audience with it the minute its hard-pounding music (Primus, Radiohead, Squarepusher) is unleashed, and dancers tapeworm themselves across the stage. From start to finish, Wolken’s wish to create a “highly charged” piece with “lots of energy – really through the roof…” succeeds without narrative at every spasmodic flip and undulation, like pollywogs on acid. This is the Pilobolus that you would want to see again and again – short and to the off-the-charts point!

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