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Yes, everything old was new again for the July 5 production of ADF's Pilobolus: Everything Old Is New Again, presented in Duke University's Page Auditorium, where the venerable company breathed new life into four classics in the recently renovated hall. I can thank my parents for a deep appreciation of this "old being new again" as they continue to pass down their favorite art and music to me through the years. This is not in the ecclesiastical interpretation of there being "nothing new under the sun," but reflects a celebratory sense of excitement, resiliency, longevity, and beginning again. Thus the ADF-Pilobolus collaboration of revisiting four works ranging from 1975 to 2007 was like returning to a home-cooked meal at the family dinner table after years of being away.
This nostalgic revisit to the classics was kicked off before the show even started with an intimate invitation into the process. All six dancers were out on the open stage, warming up and bantering back and forth with the audience.
This included the entire auditorium as a few of the dancers directed the audience in a sort of "cheer battle," section by section. And let me tell you, based on the decibels of screaming, both sides of the balcony section were the clear winners. I just can't imagine the pre-show warm up feeling as significant as it did had it been in the behemoth space that is DPAC. I could have watched the warm ups and audience play for another 30 minutes at least. At one point, a young audience member yelled to dancer Jacob Michael Warren to ask, "How tall are you?!" Instead of answering outright, dancer Quincy Ellis nestled up beside Warren and said, "Well, I'm 5'7."
This playful banter continued until the young ADF dancers of Pilobolus Shadow Camp joined the entire crew for a sweet and touching circle. Renee Jaworski then officially kicked off the night by introducing a captivating Shadow Camp performance commemorating "Summertime in Durham." This creation nearly stole the show in the way it charmed the audience with depictions of local treasures and Durham experiences and soon fostered collective "awwws" and ecstatic cheering.
"Untitled" (1975) ushered in the playful Pilobolus style as two young women wearing Victorian-style dresses suddenly and magically rose to and descended from varying heights. I was reminded of the moment Alice finds the "drink me" potion in Wonderland. I'd watched half of the original work on YouTube before this show, which made me curious to know what it was like for anyone who had no idea what was coming. This audience chuckled with delight at the absurd height changes as the two (but really four) dancers played with jocular innocence as if on a holiday picnic. More gasps and awkward laughs were heard as the scene turned more curious and serious. Two male strangers interrupted the jubilee, later resulting in the women birthing their own pair of brand new men. All six dancers participated with literal and figurative undulations of both the blithe and weighty transitions of the women's lives
The time-tested "Gnomen" (1997) was my personal favorite, both visually and emotionally. It's often been described in the context of being performed by the four male dancers, but the experience I had watching was a foray into the entirety of human experience: both the battles and the empathy we experience together. I also enjoyed considering it from the more traditional interpretation of a dance created by four men: the emotions experienced by men in relationship with each other, as well as their internal versus external conflicts. The melding of the men as one entity and the exploration of each individual's experience in the group was highlighted by David M. Chapman's lighting techniques, which really allowed the work to soar and made my soul do a tiny cartwheel of applause. It was spectacular because it was simple. The illumination came from the sides of the stage with no distracting light.
I personally had a hard time connecting to "Rushes" (2007) at the very start, but based on the audible audience reactions to it, I could tell I was in the minority. I enjoyed this dance with chairs more and more as it went along, drawing me in with each complicated emotional layer as well as each time new life was breathed into the use of the chairs. I started to see the interactions flowing between human and animalistic, as if a commentary on our simplistic likeness to beasts. By far the highlight of this piece for me was when the chairs slide across the floor in perfect timing around the stage floor, setting up a moving path for two dancers walking on the seats of the chairs in continuous motion. It was mesmerizing and effortless. The provision of chairs for the dancer carrying another on his back, along with the incorporation of a single light bulb and the gut-wrenching melancholic music, brought "Rushes" back to a humanistic and tender ending, even if we had no idea what was going on.
"Day Two" (1981) is your literal new beginning. I found myself immediately tapping my foot and progressively adding a bounce in my shoulders and head. Creative storms fire in my brain when movement and lyrics are combined, and what better conductors than Brian Eno, David Byrne, and the Talking Heads to usher in the second day of creation depicted in this work? It was like a fitful celebration of growing pains, discovery, and the momentous gift of life. The second and third songs really got me grooving when coupled with another brilliant partnership between movement and Neil Peter Jampolis and David M. Champman's conceptual lighting. I was met with a rush of excitement, nearly unable to take in the enormity of the visuals before me.
With the lack of a strict political message, Pilobolus leaves room for each individual to be more than an audience member and invites them in to actively participate in the story to make it their own if they so choose.
This seems a crucial trait to keeping the arts alive through the generations. Creative collaboration was proven the backbone of ADF's Pilobolus, and was again beautifully illustrated during the post-performance discussion. Co-artistic director Renee Jaworski joined production stage manager Kasson Marroquin, lighting director David M. Champan, and dancers Krystal Butler and Nathaniel Buschsbaum to answer questions from about 20-30 audience members who stayed behind. At one point, a couple posed their question, after stating that they'd enjoyed Pilobolus for the first time 40 years ago in Page auditorium. That was the moment that brought the evening full circle (and nearly brought me to tears). This accessibility and interaction is what the ADF and Pilobolus collaboration is all about, and I was reminded of the thrill of this performance in the more intimate Page auditorium. It was particularly exciting to hear from Krystal Butler that the one and only Martha Clarke (Pilobolus co-founder and choreographer) came in to help direct a new version of "Untitled" after not seeing it performed in 40 years. After running the original a few times, Martha agreed it was time to change it up a bit, and that was evident in comparing the 1975 version to the 2019 edition. Both Butler and Buschbaum commented that these types of collaborations through generations of dancers and audiences are what makes Pilobolus look so effortless. "It's a family. It takes time to build trust, but it's built on the care that we have for each other," said Buschbaum. When Composer Igor Stravinsky was criticized for changing up classic ballet scores he responded with: "You respect, but I love." Thank you to ADF and Pilobolus for all of your work to love on these classic pieces.
Pilobolus and ADF nurture Durham's creativity and give us permission to throw off the bowlines to explore the freedom of our own rebellious sides. It leaves a small crack in the door, empowering us to push it open and reminding us to move forward to embrace who we want to be.
I'd say the fourth wall is transparent and nearly completely broken when Pilobolus is presented in collaboration with ADF. Twyla Tharp said, "Art is where you run away when you can't leave home." What a blessing to live in Durham where ADF and Pilobolus allow us to run away in our own backyard.
Tips: Bring cash for both parking and the small bar at the front of the auditorium (cash only for both). Bring patience for crowd navigation and the bathroom lines in the smaller venue, though I did enjoy chatting during intermission with fellow audience members who were also waiting in the lines!
Catch the remaining performance of Pilobolus in Everything Old Is New Again at 7 p.m. Saturday, July 6, in Duke University's Page Auditorium. See the sidebar for details.