After 40 years, Pilobolus Dance may be wearing out

The company has had an enormous influence on American dance, but it's now having trouble evolving to new and exciting places.

Crosscut archive image.

Pilobolus Dance Theatre: coming to Meany since 1982.

The company has had an enormous influence on American dance, but it's now having trouble evolving to new and exciting places.

Pilobolus Dance Theatre is now celebrating its 40th anniversary. I have seen them numerous times over the years, both live and on video. I remember well the excitement the company generated when I first saw them in concert four decades ago in one of their earliest performances in New York City.

Here were four athletic, bright and gifted young men from Dartmouth who had first studied dance with their college teacher Alison Chase (who was to soon join them in their performances) and through rigorous experimentation and work had collaboratively created a unique approach to the form.

Most spectacular were their seemingly endless and inventive ways of mingling their bodies to make organic and unique shapes, complemented by physical rigor, wit, good-natured humor, and their overall pleasure in seeking out new possibilities.

They were not the first to do some of these things, of course — one need only reference Ted Shawn and his Male Dancers who toured endlessly in the 1920s and 30s to see the capability of the male ensemble. Pilobolus, knowingly or not, put many facets together to be that thing most desired by all young artists — to become an original. As a result they have been wildly popular with audiences, many new to dance, and a cash cow for presenters.

From the beginning there were critics who felt the group was all visual pun, movement displays with no soul and no real choreographic content. I have, until recently disagreed, finding Pilobolus intriguing in their ways of exploring a group creative process and in their approaches to movement-theater.

The company has been coming to Meany Hall since 1982, and last week was their sixth appearance. When I saw them four years ago at Meany after not viewing their work for some time, I was disappointed. The two works collaboratively developed by the company were banal and repetitive. The only pleasures of that concert were a new work, “Rushes,” created by the group in their first collaboration with outside artists, in this case two Israelis, Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak, and an early (1973) and brief male solo, “Pseudopodia.”

Forty years is a long time and after that 2007 concert I wondered if it was just a fluke, a temporary downturn, or had the original impetus for Pilobolus been lost, having not evolved to new and exciting places. This past Thursday’s (Oct. 6) performance offered little evidence for the latter. Here was a troupe with not much left to say, and with works that have not aged well.

It is a measure of Pilobolus’ success that there have been many imitators, some spun off from the company itself. The work, especially of their first decade, has had a profound influence on three generations of contemporary dancers.  We can see, if not their direct influence, than perhaps kindred spirits in the wildly popular Cirque de Soleil productions and others of that ilk.  So what once looked original now, through no fault of the company, can look derivative, even a bit trite.

I need to cut the company some slack here, because as a result of injuries to two performers the show I saw at Meany had to be quickly altered with three works added: “Rushes” and “Pseudopodia,” and the lightweight female duet “Duet” from 1992.

I still like “Pseudopodia,” a male solo from 1973, not because it is an oldie from the heyday of Pilobolus, but because of the individualism it exhibits of the young Jonathan Wolkan, a company founder and sadly dead at an early age last year. Although by no means a masterpiece, its pitched shoulder stands, body rolls around the stage, and simple vocabulary demonstrate what a determined young dancer with an agile mind and no boundaries might achieve.

“Rushes” is a mysterious theater/dance work for 6 people, 12 chairs, and a small suitcase, carried closed most of them time, but opened once to allow the curious dancers to peer into it. I heard a gentleman behind me say after its performance that it “created a world all its own.” It did, and that’s what I liked about it upon its first viewing in 2007. It has been tinkered with over time since then, which happens to all dances, and though still with many inventive moments, much of the magic seemed lost for me. It now seemed made of pieces, rather than the whole I so liked.

The program changes meant that the newest work on the bill, 2011’s “All Is Not Lost” and the wonderful “Untitled” from 1975, were not performed.  More's the pity, as I would have liked to have seen how the company was faring with its newest creation. There was a trifle from 2009, “The Transformation,” which through the miraculous shadow lighting of Neil Peter Jampolis, had a woman transformed into a dog, to be mastered by an enormous projected arm and hand. It was clever, once or twice quite beautiful, but also only a momentarily diverting trick.

Closing the program was “Day Two,” a group work from 1980, originally directed by a Pilobolus founder, Moses Pendleton, and choreographed by the dancers of the company of the time. It is a tribal-like rite that plays on creation myths. There are some lovely images and lots of gymnastic movements, but I was bothered by the lack of any continued thread of choreographic concept, as if the creators were going from one nice visual look to the next without the needed connective tissue.  

In the last several years Pilobolus has begun to bring in outside artists to collaborate with them, “Rushes” being the first such effort, and the unfortunately cancelled “All Is Not Lost” the most recent. Perhaps this will revitalize a company that is showing its age and lack of distinctive ideas. Even with new groups of fine young dancers, the years have not worn well on the company and its work. Sometimes things just wear out.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors