American Dance Festival’s “Together We Dance” series, hosted September 9-16 at the North Carolina Museum of Art, continued on Friday evening with the first of two performances by veteran dance company Pilobolus. Pilobolus as a dance company is celebrating its 50th year with some nods to its origins, but it remains committed to its reputation as “a rebellious dance company.” This weekend marked the company’s 49th season as a part of ADF’s summer series! (Barely anything can stop Pilobolus from being an awesome collaborator, and although ADF persevered through 2020, it had a different format that did not allow its usual performances.) What’s more, one Pilobolus member proudly mentioned ADF alumni status, and another identified himself as a Chapel Hill, NC, native, highlighting the company’s affinity for our state’s offerings.

The performance took place outside in the Joseph M. Bryan, Jr., Theater, and the weather could not have been more perfectly clear and cool. Seating was available both in the amphitheater and on the lawn for those who wanted to spread out, and concessions were available, adding to a very relaxed atmosphere.

Before the show even began, Pilobolus was excited to be on stage, bouncing through fun warm-up exercises on stage to light, lively music. Once they had gotten sufficiently hyped – complete with rallying cry – the show began with one of their classics. “Walklyndon” is a work conceived in 1971, the company’s very first year. It was choreographed by Lee Harris and Pilobolus co-founders Robby Barnett, Moses Pendleton, and Jonathan Wolken. Performed with no music, the piece is inspired by vaudeville and slapstick comedy themes, with silly collisions and varied, diverse movements.

The full complement of dancers participated in this opening number: Nathaniel Buchsbaum, Quincy Ellis, Marlon Feliz, Hannah Klinkman, Paul Liu, and Zack Weiss. The stage crossings began as mundane marches, but as the performance continued, the dancers depicted complex relationships to each other: sometimes they were friendly, sometimes flirty, sometimes combative. Groups and pairs did different types of interesting lifts and the overall tone was light and silly – poor Buchsbaum got “pantsed” by what appeared to be random passerby but actually included Pilobolus’ Artistic Director Renée Jaworski! But there was also some amazing body control on display in some of the meticulously rehearsed yet seemingly spontaneous pantomimes.

In a very drastic change of pace, Quincy Ellis and Hannah Klinkman performed another Pilobolus classic, grounded in a much different exploratory dance style. Choreographed by Alison Chase and Moses Pendleton in 1978, “Shizen” features gorgeous shakuhachi flute music composed by Riley Lee, formerly a touring member of Kodo. The shakuhachi has a breathy, ethereal sound, and this solo line performed behind the two minimally dressed dancers is plaintive and primal. The piece is meant to depict the varied relationships between humankind and nature, as well as between mankind and womankind.

On a darkened stage, the music meandered for a long moment while the dancers reposed in yogic crouches on opposite sides of the stage. Gradually, the lights warmed and the dancers rose, moving very slowly through simple shapes performed in an uncanny near-unison despite their being unable to see each other. The undulating, trilling music swelled and receded as the dancers continued to work their way gracefully towards each other, finally touching.

Occasional frantic movements punctuated the ever-evolving physicality of the dancers, Ellis lifting and moving Klinkman in alternatingly tender embraces, seductive weight shifts, and graceful swings across his body. The effortless-looking passing of tension and release back and forth was beautiful, utilizing body-stacking, inversions, and occasional erratic motions to highlight life’s spontaneity. It was gorgeous and incredibly thought-provoking, a big change from the comedic works both before and after it.

The next work was choreographed by Michael Tracy in 1980. “The Empty Suitor” tells the classic tale: man pursues woman, woman drives him crazy by flirting with him and several other men. Paul Liu performed a solo from the larger original piece in which the man struggles to keep his footing on long, rolling tubes along the floor. Marlon Feliz appeared briefly at the start of the solo to tempt Liu to pursue her and get things “rolling.”

Dressed as a dapper man in top hat, trenchcoat, and cane, Liu played the part of the fraught young pursuer with expert control, seeming to slip, slide, and do splits over the tubes, and appearing to lose control of his momentum in a multitude of exciting ways –always catching himself or resolving the motion in a satisfying move. Backed by Ben Webster’s jaunty, jazzy piano rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” the piece is highly comedic, growing increasingly ridiculous yet impressive because of its complexity. Everything Liu was doing would have been impressive without the added difficulties of getting tangled up in the legs of a park bench, balancing a top hat on the bench’s arm, and artfully wielding a cane! The solo was a total departure from the reverent and introspective nature of the previous piece, almost like watching a circus interlude between dance works, but it was done very well and a delight to watch.

Fittingly, the work that closed the program was the newest of the set, premiered towards the end of Pilobolus cofounder Jonathan Wolken’s life and dedicated to his memory. “Megawatt” (2004) is an exuberant explosion of movement, backed by music by Primus, Radiohead, and Squarepusher. This revival of Wolken’s work, sponsored in part by ADF, sought to “gently subvert stereotypical gender-associated movement vocabulary,” shaking up traditional movement types assigned to one particular gender. Generally, it was full of high-energy motion in all different forms, with the full cast seemingly electrified by the chaotic music and Neil Peter Jampolis’ clever light design. Dancers passed the energy around as they made contact with each other, performing aerobic and gymnastic motions over athletic mats that had been placed over the stage. I took two full pages of notes attempting to parse ideas provided by the complex and varied movements and composition of the work, but suffice it to say that this work was amazing and definitely worth seeing in person!

Pilobolus, always a crowd favorite at ADF, was well-deserving of the audience’s enthusiasm and the many children giggling and clapping at various moments in its mostly-light-hearted program. It was a little disappointing to condense the company’s wild 50-year history into just an hour (and the music was over-amplified and painfully loud), but the whole experience was nothing but jaw-dropping fun.