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Pilobolus is celebrating 50 years of rebellious art making. In 1971, Moses Pendleton, Jonathan Wolken and Steve Johnson created their first dance composition ‘Pilobolus’ and the name stuck. The opening night at this year’s American Dance Festival spanned works from 1975 to an ADF-commissioned world premiere. Co-artistic directors Renee Jaworski and Matt Kent, who are also former company members of Pilobolus, introduced the dancers: Nathaniel Buchsbaum, Quincy Ellis, Paul Liu, Hannah Klinkman, Marlon Feliz, and North Carolina native Zachary Weiss. Full administration and dancer bios can be found here.
Untitled (1975) by Robert Dennis featured costume design by Kitty Daly and Malcolm McCormick: Two women, on a summer evening, are in a whispered conversation. Assisted by male dancers under their dresses, the women are dizzyingly elevated, and their dresses elongate. Two men, dashingly dressed, enter and try to gain their attention. They duel to the death for the women’s attention. Superbly acted by Klinkman and Feliz, the women end by rocking away as the sun fades on their summer evening.
ADF commissioned the world premiere of The Ballad, which was the most deeply moving piece of the evening. Exploring the history of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation (Kent, Connecticut area), this collaboration with storyteller Darlene Kascak and Jaworski and Kent of Pilobolus tells the epic history of the tribal nation’s relationship with the earth and the horrific injustices suffered by the children of Indigenous communities: A young girl in a simple blue dress with Indigenous-patterned overlay gives offerings to the earth. Narrated with spoken word, the story dives deep into how seeds move from places by the wind, how the sun and rain nourish the plants, and the reverence the tribal nations show towards Mother Earth. Oral traditions were important to teaching children the ancestors’ history from one generation to the next. Exploring movement of the earth, trees, and wind, the Indigenous girl whirls through space lifted by the wind creatures. The story shifts to modern day with the Indigenous children being taken from their families and placed into foster care families. Displaced, abused, forbidden to speak their language, the horrific injustice to young Indigenous Americans is recorded through this deeply moving work. The piece ends with the girl being lifted high into the sky, making an offering to the gods above as she is floating in the air. Sign language interpreter Caterina Phillips was passionate in her delivery of this intensely profound work. The Ballad should be awarded for its storytelling, beautiful movement, and ecological message of “We have to take care of the land so that the land can take care of us.” Simply stated, The Ballad shows that co-artistic directors Jaworski and Kent are profoundly committed to making dances that create a conversation about social justice, reckon with our country’s history, and shine a light on the consequences of how we treat Mother Earth.
On the Nature of Things (2014), performed to music by Vivaldi, featured dancers Buchsbaum, Ellis, and Feliz: A three-foot-wide pedestal is featured centerstage and bodies of a woman and a man are draped across the sacrificial pedestal. The lighting and set design by Neil Peter Jampolis captured the dancers’ nude bodies with warmth and drama. With elements of Dante’s Inferno and Grecian figures moving in slow motion, this mesmerizing work of art is centered in the depths of Hell. The female and male figures are lusting for one another, but their embrace is denied by the domineering satanic character’s control. The three dancers dance entirely on the small pedestal platform, defying gravity with weight-sharing feats of strength. The lighting is crucial to the dance. With rays of light through the clouds, the domineering character focuses above, seething in anger towards the heavens. He then turns back to the audience and takes a satanical, satirical bow for his evil deeds in Hell.
Behind the Shadows (2021), a look inside the company’s full-length work Shadowland, gives the audience a peek behind the scenes on how they create shadow dances: Figures illuminated behind the movable projection screen are revealed, with high intensity dance movements exhibiting the dancers’ powerful technical training. A woman’s small figure is greeted by a large, flirtatious hand that tickles and eventually decapitates her. All good. She recovers. Her journey continues with discovering the sea creatures, birds, and blossoming flowers all created by shadows of the dancers’ bodies. This is a feel-good piece with uplifting music by David Poe. The refrain “It feels good” is repeated often. It’s catchy and, indeed, it felt good.
The final piece of the program was Day Two (1981), created by Pilobolus founder Moses Pendleton: Dancers begin by executing superhuman Italian pas de chats, flying through the air like frogs jumping. This piece lets the dancers showcase their technical training with fierce chaîné jetés, barrel turns, butterfly jumps, pencil turns into pristine balletic sous-sus, with sustained relevé balances. Music by Brian Eno and David Byrne of the Talking Heads, this piece is long and shows the fortitude of what it takes to be a Pilobolus dancer: unbelievable strength, the endurance of an ultra-athlete, and a complete commitment to trust.
This small but mighty company of six dancers were so connected, well-rehearsed, and intensely joyous in their passion for dance and storytelling. With so much exposed skin, sweat must be a hard factor to navigate. Trust, complete trust, must be another factor. One dancer standing on the feet of another dancer, had the audience gasp and audibly cheer. The iconic Talking Head’s bass guitar and percussion is the prefect soundscape for this work and the creative vision of Moses Pendleton was in full force. The piece ends with the dancers under the marley floor covering. They claw their way through the center, forming a flower blossoming towards the light.
Pilobolus, a phototropic (light-loving) fungus, created in a college dance lab, is still growing 50 years later. ADF is the perfect stage to celebrate the great art makers, past and present. Pilobolus should be applauded for being committed to producing rebellious, creative, and risk-taking pieces for a new generation of audiences who want to be amazed and moved by dance art.
Pilobolus’ Big Five-Oh! returns for a final evening performance at ADF on Saturday, June 25. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.