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Although formed way back in 1971 (still sounds relatively recent to me), Pilobolus still exudes an aura of freshness and often revolutionary concepts that other dance companies don’t even approach. A group of students at Dartmouth created this ensemble aptly naming it for a fungus that propels itself with extraordinary strength, speed, and accuracy. Pilobolus has become a favorite at the American Dance Festival (ADF), and they appear at nearly all their summer seasons. This year's performances take place at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC), a perfect fit for a mammoth program that has something for everyone.
Among their other obvious remarkable attributes, Pilobolus, at their inception and continuing to this day, has done something which might not seem like a big deal now but was quite new to the dance world: they made it OK to be funny, quirky, and silly. Before Pilobolus, even modern dance was suffering from the same malady as classical music concerts: inability and/or unwillingness to break out of a level of pomposity and seriousness that eventually becomes stifling. It's OK to laugh and smile now, as well as be profound: this performance was a perfect and stunning mix of every human emotion.
There is perhaps no composer better suited to accompany this concept of an enormously wide spectrum of emotion than Dmitri Shostakovich, whose music often travels from the palpable depths of despair to unbridled silliness and sarcasm bordering on clownish. The use of his Chamber Symphony, Opus 110, as the music behind Sweet Purgatory, one of Pilobolus' masterpieces from 1991, is an example of the perfect melding of music and dance. If ever the emotion of a musical work was perfectly portrayed and translated into non-musical terms, this is as good as it gets. Six dancers – a number often used by Pilobolus, a perfect number to take in everything happening on stage – engaged in a magnificent display of the gamut of movement from achingly slow, subtle gestures to remarkable athleticism that would be the envy of any professional athlete. It is worth noting that while two of the pairings are male-female, one is male-male but this is no "statement." What is remarkable is the strength and fluidity in the lifts and other movements that these two men execute. The generally subdued lighting and the uncanny physical manifestation of Shostakovich's music made this one of the most compelling and powerful artistic experiences I have witnessed.
This program included a rather unconventional (for dance) series of sort of brief, visual palate cleansers between each work. Beginning with "Welcome," followed by "Take 13," and then "Take 4," these short films focused on intertwined bodies and opening eyes. It did serve the purpose, for me, as a neutral stop on a trip between vastly different creations.
Wednesday Morning, 11:45 is a premiere commissioned by the ADF. It is classic Pilobolus: funny, wildly creative, and unafraid to use many props and stage effects. In fact, it begins as what appears to be a play. A messy table is on stage, and a man comes out and begins sort of cleaning up. Upon opening a box on the desk, light appears on a screen on the other side of the stage. Through silhouette only, we see two dancers – well two legs and one arm of each dancer. They seem to be portraying a heron or crane, or perhaps it is a demented homage to Swan Lake. I won't spoil the final gag, but this is definitely something you'll want to see.
Pilobolus again not only changed gears, but modes of transportation, as they went from the quirky comedy of Wednesday Morning to the chilling, nightmarish world premiere of Threshold. Five dancers shared the stage with one prop: a moveable door frame that opened up countless layers of meaning and metaphor – viewers can make their own judgements. There is a lot of inventive use of lighting around and through the door contributing to this deeply disturbing psychological trip. The dancers engaged in fascinating slow-motion movement that nearly resembles frame-by-frame playback as well as "creepy" authentic mimicry of the movement of bugs. A fantastic original score by David Van Tieghem adds depth to the feeling of unease and dread so beautifully portrayed.
For their finale they reached way back to a work from 1980: Day Two. Set to the music of Brian Eno, David Byrne, and the Talking Heads, it is of course subject to each viewer's interpretation, but it can reasonably be said to be an ambitious depiction of creation. I suppose that even in this day there needs to be notice that, except for flesh-colored briefs that are barely discernible, all dancers are completely nude. Eventually, little notice is made of that and it becomes central to the story. There are sections of a quasi-awakening where the four males remain kneeling while wildly flailing and eventually stand upright. The two women appear (another six person dance) and, to my perception, this became a re-imagining of The Rite of Spring. This is a stunning work that demands and gets your full focus and leaves you emotionally drained.
Throughout the evening there had been no curtain calls after any of the dances, but they more than made up for that after the completion of Day Two. When the curtain re-opened, the stage was filled with large water slides and each dancer slid across the stage for their applause. It was the expected unexpectedness of a Pilobolus performance: a day at the beach, a topless beach.
This performance will continue through Saturday, June 20. Please see the sidebar for details.