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Review 2, 6-26: Somber Fools
Angsty Antics from Pilobolus, Version '03
By Nancy Dalva
Copyright 2003 Nancy Dalva
NEW YORK -- One fine
day some 32 years ago, a merry band of Dartmouth jocks -- inspired
by their comely teacher Alison Becker Chase, who would soon abandon
her academic position to join their ranks -- got together in a cow
pasture on Walklyndon Farm in Vermont and gave a dance performance.
Soon they got themselves another girl (named Martha Clarke) and
decided to call themselves Pilobolus (after an indigenous fungus).Theirs
was a group endeavor, the dance version of organic food and the
commune. Everyone made every dance, in a collaborative and improvisational
process that still, to some extent, persists. The Pilobolus spirit
was antic, and they liked to take off their clothes.
Never forsaking their
weird blend of the surreal and the silly, the originals super-grew
their company into a popular and critically successful juggernaut.
(It helped a lot that The New Yorker's Arlene Croce, the doyenne
of all dance critics, fell head over heels in love with them, which
believe me, wasn't hard, as they were madly entertaining off stage
as well as on.) Starting with Momix (that would be short for Moses's
mix, as in co-founder Moses Pendleton), Pilobolus spawned spin-offs.
They made films. They did synergy before anyone knew about synergy,
insinuating their works into the mainstream, including the repertoires
of major ballet companies, and building a fan base around the globe.
After all these years, motoring into the Joyce Theater this week
for its annual summer season, Pilobolus still has a full head of
steam, if a modified engine. Of the current artistic directors (three
of whom have been there since the first year), two work alone, for
the most part, two in tandem. Works are credited to these individuals,
with a nod to the first casts who take part in their development.
For the first week, they've hired a significant string quartet.
But are they still crazy?
From the evidence of
the opening program at the Joyce, seen Tuesday, no. Rather, Pilobolus
is worried, melancholy, freighted with grief, and inclined to strange
reproductive rituals. (Well, this last is nothing new.) The exception
was the 1971 "Walklyndon," by four founders, Robby Barnett, Lee
Harris, Moses Pendleton, and Jonathan Wolken, who wore purple satin
boxer shorts over yellow leotards identical -- at least as I recall
it-- to the ones worn now by Ras Mikey C, Otis Cook, Mark Fucik,
Renee Jaworski, Matt Kent, and Jennifer Macavinta, who currently
comprise the troupe. This is a silly dance, mostly pedestrian and
slapstick, all on the transverse, and it is, in the current Pilobolite
context, pointless, because the dancers are clearly dancers. Except
for Chase, the founders were athletes (hence the boxers -- not underwear,
but actually boxing-type garb) trying to let their inner dancers
out, to comic effect. They had a kind of endearing rusticity, however
faux. There's nothing rustic about the current crop.
In fact, for the silky
first ten minutes of the program, I'd have believed it if you told
me I was watching Doug Varone's troupe. The piece was "My Brother's
Keeper" (2003), set by Michael Tracy (in collaboration, it is noted,
with the cast of four) to dramatic, mournful music by Christopher
Hatzis, who worked in concert with Pilobolus and the St. Lawrence
String Quartet. Neil Peter Jampolis smartly lit the mostly dark
stage with ladders of light on the floor, down spots, and such,
as Ras Mikey C, Cook, Fucik and Jaworski paired up (and then later
switched partners) and wreaked havoc on each other, in an orgy of
dependency that turned nasty, parasitic and malignant, with a subsequent
somewhat jaunty Cophueira section devolving into strange lifts and
weird means of support.
This is typical Pilobolus
-- someone draped over someone else's head, or being worn like a
belt, or cantilevered upside down off a chest, or hung off the neck
by an arm. With shifts in the score, the tone shifted -- though
not as much as the music, which turned into a sultry Apache affair
the St. Lawrence String Quartet swooped into like so many Gypsy
violinists. Then the musicians yelled "Hey, Hey, Hey!!", the dancers
did cartwheels, exchanged partners, and everything got all tragic.
The dance ended in a constantly shifting figure (reminiscent of
a beautiful passage in Twyla Tharp's "Sweet Fields," where the dancer
was borne aloft) where one dancer was passed among the others and
laid gently to rest on the floor, only to rise and circle back as
the next dancer was being cradled passed along, and so forth. This
took place in golden light.
There followed a "musical
interlude," brief and sorrowing, of Jonathan Berger's "Eli Eli(In
Memory of Daniel Pearl)," identified in the program as a recent
work based on another work, J.K. Sandler's setting of a poem by
Hannah Senesh, who died parachuting into Hungary to save Jews from
the Holocaust. Then there was a bolt of thunder and lightening on
the blacked-out stage, and "Symbiosis" (2001), another Tracey piece,
This is not the sort
of thing I associated with Pilobolus -- elegies and lightening bolts
and classical music -- but I do now. The St. Lawrence were absolutely
wonderful. I'd see anything dance to them. (Of Canadian genesis
but in residence since 1998 at Stanford, the quartet has upcoming
New York appearances for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
and Carnegie's Weill Recital Hall, and will be in recital at the
Metropolitan Museum in November. They record for EMI/Angel.)
"Symbiosis, " like the
opening piece, could be about interdependency, but it mostly looks
like the mating ritual of aliens. Cook is an exceptionally strong
man -- perhaps the strongest I've seen since Paul Taylor's Elie
Chaib -- who boasts an upper body with a lot of torque, like a muscular
odalisque. Jaworski, his partner, is also exceptionally powerful.
You spend a lot of time, at least I do, at Pilobolus thinking about
how strong the performers are -- which in this case made them ideally
suited for the piece's beautiful, sculptural stunts, which are like
nothing you've ever seen before except what they've just done. This
is the problem with Pilobolus: you're constantly assaulted by novelty,
which quickly grows tedious. They've gone off on their own and invented
a language, and it's rudimentary. It doesn't have a complex grammar,
or much subtlety, and it doesn't lend itself to complex, highly
evolved work, though it is certainly evolving. This was clear seeing
"Walklyndon," which came next.
the St. Lawrence played Tchaikovsky's Andante Contabile from the
String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11 in D major, brilliantly chosen for
it surprising relationship (in tone, and tonally) to the music for
"Symbiosis," which included Thomas Obie Lee, Hatzis, Arvo Part,
and Jack Brody. There followed Shostakovich's String Quartet No.
8, Op. 110, the score for "Sweet Purgatory" (1991), a full company
piece whose choreographers are Barnett, Chase, Tracy, and Wolken,
in collaboration with the original cast.
The by now familiar
elements, with lifts and standing on shoulders and the like, suggested
some kind of striving upward, something angelic. Part way through,
the atmosphere thickened as the fog machine ran amok, the house
filling with what the fire department later characterized as a "dense
haze." An alarm sounded. But the St. Lawrence played on, and Pilobolus
danced on, to the faint, insistent beep of the smoke alarm, right
up to the curtain calls. The 7th Battalion of the New York Fire
Department meanwhile responded, fanning out into the house as the
crowd dispersed. In the lobby, Chief Daniel Martinetion plaintively
asked, "The fire alarm went off and not one of several hundred patrons
exited?" No, not one. There are dancing fools, and then there are
fools for dance.
Nancy Dalva is the senior writer for 2wice.
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