Modern dance troupe Pilobolus turns 50, will mix vintage, new at The Egg

Pilobolus brings its movement and shadow play to The Egg Friday. (photo provided)
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Pilobolus brings its movement and shadow play to The Egg Friday. (photo provided)

Turning 50 is no small accomplishment for any dance company. But Pilobolus is that exceptional group of dancers who know no bounds. Fans can thrill to see five of their creations Friday (Nov. 12) at The Egg as part of the Dance in Albany series.

“We’re so grateful to be live,” said Matt Kent, co-artistic director with Renee Jaworski. “We live for it.”

Usually, the company, which includes four men and two women dancers, has a “robust tour schedule and tours the world,” Jaworski said, “but this past year was lighter because of COVID.”

This performance is the penultimate stop on the company’s six week-fall tour; their two-month spring tour begins in February.

Still, being able to look back this season on an exceptional company lineage has been gratifying. The dances on Friday will be a mix of vintage with the new and will include “Megawatt” (2004), “Shizen” (1978), “Day 2” (1980), “Beyond the Shadow Class” (2007) and “A Solo from the Empty Suitor” (1980). While some of these have been updated, the company will present for the first time their shadow work that will be “like an invitation to the audience to see behind the screen,” Jaworski said.

The dancers will use a moveable screen on wheels. The audience may see what looks like an elephant or a huge hand pointing at a tiny child. Then the screen will move and they’ll see how the dancers had to pose to achieve the effects.

“It will be a different geometry,” she said. “Dancers had to learn how to position themselves so as not to touch each other but to work to create the image. It’s called a transformation.”

While this technology is new for the company and audiences, it will become one of the 120 pieces created over these last five decades that they’ve toured in more than 65 countries. All hard to believe when one considers how the company began.

In 1971, Moses Pendleton, Jonathan Wolken, and Steve Johnson were enrolled at Dartmouth College (NH) in a dance composition class taught by Alison Becker Chase.

“They were not trained dancers,” Jaworski said. “But Alison saw they were physically intelligent and had an interesting approach to movement in that their partnership came from their fear of being on stage alone. They would climb onto or hold each other.”

They also had a biology connection in that Wolken’s father had a biology lab and was studying pilobolus crystallinus, a light-loving fungus that when it threw its spores, they traveled up to 45 mph in the first millimeter of flight and adhered to whatever they landed on.

“So when they [the dancers] would create pieces, they looked not like what one would do with one body but would create characters or animals or biological forms,” she said.

And being skiers, pole vaulters and fencers, their movements were always highly athletic. The first dance they created in class they called “Pilobolus.” Eventually, Pendleton, Wolken, Chase and two other men and one woman formed the company to create dozens of dances all with that particular style of movement.

There were, however, significant differences to other dance companies. Instead of having a choreographer, every dancer has their own voice and ownership of their movement by sharing their ideas, Jaworski said. That method of making a dance continues today.

“Any of the dances start not from an idea but we ask ‘What story do we want to tell,’ ” Kent said. “We play, experiment and what grabs our interest, then we build on that and share. The time of a dance is variable. We have dances that are five minutes long and ‘Shadow Land’ is seventy-five minutes.”

Unlike classical ballet that has to fit the choreography to the length of a musical piece, so the movement is married to the music, Kent said they may create a dance and then build the music on to the movement. They’ve even created a dance that had no sound track, only the sound of the dancers’ feet hitting the floor. Some scores are original and they work with a composer, others are musical collages of rock bands’ tunes, and they have a sound engineer. For this tour, the music is taped.

Another difference with classical ballet is that the dancers do not have a daily class.

“We leave it to the dancers to guide their own training,” Jaworski said. “We want them to dabble and play and be curious about other styles of dance and movement so as to keep an open mind. But the dancers do move and must stay strong and flexible to be expressive.”

In recent months, the company has also forayed into social issues including the Black Lives Matter and to Native Americans. Because the company is based in Washington, Conn., it is located on the ancestral homelands of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation. The company has paid respect to them and met with Darlene Kascak, a Native storyteller, and created a dance last summer based on one of their legends.

Kent and Jaworski will give a pre-performance talk at 7:15 p.m. on Friday.

To attend, masks are required as well as social distancing. Because patrons must take an elevator to the theatre, allow for more time to get to your seat and for departure after the show.

Pilobolus

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, November 12
WHERE: The Egg, Albany
HOW MUCH: $36
MORE INFO: www.theegg.org; 518-473-1845

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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