Pilobolus, at 50, Brings New & Repertory Works to the Joyce

Pilobolus in “The Ballad.” | Photo by Ben McKeown

BY ELIZABETH ZIMMER | Pilobolus—the mostly-male performance ensemble founded at Dartmouth College in 1971—had its 50th anniversary celebration derailed by the pandemic, but picked up the pieces and is touring now with two retrospective programs, each containing new works and repertory favorites.

In residence at the Joyce through the end of July, the Connecticut-based troupe still brings audiences to their feet, delighting mixed crowds—boomers, their kids, and their grandkids—with acrobatic antics, brave balances, and daring adventures in lifts and rolls. Sometimes they insulate the floor; usually they wear knee pads. They are gymnasts, tumblers, most at ease doing somersaults and turning one another upside down.

The company is notorious for its collaborative process: Most of its works are group efforts, made by the folks who will ultimately perform them. As the years go by, the most successful pieces are passed along to younger dancers, so the program credits read like the lists of producers for contemporary Broadway shows. Exceptions include the frenetic Megawatt, choreographed in 2004 by the late Jonathan Walken and his colleagues, which opens Program A, and a clip from Michael Tracy’s The Empty Suitor (1980), charmingly executed here by Nathaniel Buchsbaum as a dapper fellow who tangles with a loveseat.

Megawatt is a technological tour-de-force, with flashing lights and booming music by Primus, Radiohead, and Squarepusher. The technology here includes the bodies of the six dancers, dressed in raggedy wrestling gear, who ambulate on their shoulder blades and propel themselves along with their ankles. Are they daft superheroes? Athletes gone rogue? A bit of each, I think, playing simultaneously Frankenstein and his monster, accelerating until they knock themselves out.

Pilobolus in “The Ballad.” | Photo by Ben McKeown

The newer works on the program are less effective. Evening Song—created jointly by company member Derion Loman, artistic directors Matt Kent and Renée Jaworski, and collaborating artist Madison Olandt, and performed by Quincy Ellis, Marlon Feliz, Hannah Klinkman, Paul Liu, Zac Weiss, and Buchsbaum—has a new score by Jad Abumrad, a name you may recognize from WNYC hits like Radiolab. A lot of it looks like the beach at sunset and sounds like the weather, with raindrops and tinkly distorted piano and vocal music. Also heartbeats. Central to its design are two huge lengths of tie-dyed fabric, purple and blue, that serve as blankets and shelters, shelves, and ropes for something like tug-of-war. Four hunky guys are costumed like gladiators, two women (Feliz and Klinkman) in short dresses; the ladies sometimes carry the men. The piece functions more like a moving sculpture than like traditional choreography; the dancers pose and flex in the darkly golden light, and manipulate the fabric in ways that recall early modern dance (Doris Humphrey!) and 1950s Broadway (Jerome Robbins’s designs for The King and I). It’s pretty, but pretty is not what I expect or need from this energetic troupe.

In the evening’s second half we get another new piece, The Ballad, that also seems soft-focused; its jazzy soundscape by Ben Sollee also foregrounds heartbeats. Central is narration by collaborating storyteller Darlene Kascak, who’s the education director at the Institute of American Indian Studies in Washington, Connecticut, where Pilobolus is based. She offers what is essentially a sermon on how native Americans were mistreated by the U.S. government, connecting those troubles with the ones facing immigrants today. “It was no Disney cruise to get over here,” she observes of many of the new arrivals’ tribulations, and notes the necessity to restore balance with Mother Earth once again.

Meanwhile a young woman (Feliz) in a blue outfit brandishes a straw doll, and is lifted and handed about by Buchsbaum, Ellis, Weiss, and Klinkman. The work is gentle, familiar, easy for newcomers to the dance world to understand. Kascak’s narration could use editing, tightening; it’s awfully casual for a professional New York stage, and its fits and starts distract from the dancing.

Pilobolus in “Branches.” | Photo by Ben McKeown

Program A concludes with Branches, made in 2017 for the outdoor stage at Jacob’s Pillow by the usual gang of collaborators, 10 this time, only one of whom, Buchsbaum, actually dances in the piece. The six dancers, wearing practically nothing, imitate birds, run in circles in golden light, and walk on all fours, perhaps around an imaginary pond. David Van Tieghem’s sound design invests the air with bird calls and sloshing water; some movers are suspended in space, others witness from headstands, and they all propel themselves mostly by rolling and tumbling. Like the newer pieces on this bill, it is very gentle and rooted in the natural world. Appropriate, perhaps, for a troupe named after a fungus, but a bit disappointing to those of us who treasure the wild fantasies of their earlier work.

My hunch is that Program B, which opens July 18 for a week and then plays three more times toward the end of the run, will be more of a thrill to both nostalgia-seekers and a new generation of dance watchers. It includes the brilliant Untitled, a romantic, mid-1970s work that marked the addition of innovative choreographer Martha Clarke to the troupe’s roster; the very funny Walklyndon; the 2014 On the Nature of Things, to Vivaldi; a new quartet, Awaken Heart, engineered by the usual gang as well as company alum Gaspard Louis; a newish work inspired by the 2009 piece Shadowland; and the 1992 Sweet Purgatory, to Shostakovich, which critic Jack Anderson called “serious as well as spectacular.” I’ll go back for that.

The Joyce Theater’s presentation of Pilobolus in “Big Five-OH!” runs through July 30 at the Joyce Theater (175 Eighth Ave. at W. 19th St.). For tickets ($16-$101), click here or call JoyceCharge at 212-242-0800. Program A: Sat., July 15 at 2pm; Sun., July 16 at 2pm; Tues./Wed., July 25/26 at 8pm; and Sat., July 29 at 2pm & 8pm. Program B: Tues./Wed., July 18/19 at 7:30pm; Thurs./Fri., July 20/21 & 27/28 at 8pm; Sat., July 22 at 2pm (family matinee) and 8pm; Sun., July 23 at 2pm; and Sun., July 30 at 2pm. Visit the Pilobolus website by clicking here. To read about the Joyce Theater’s detailed health and safety protocols, click here. To read about a free Pilbolus performance at Chelsea Park on July 23, click here.

Image via Friends of Chelsea Green.


Pilobolus in the Park: A Free Rescheduled Event on Sunday, July 23 at 5pm & 6:15pm at Chelsea Green Park (140 W. 20th St. btw. 6th & 7th Aves.) | The Friends of Chelsea Green, the Joyce Theater, and Pilobolus Dance come together to present this free, two-program performance originally scheduled for what turned out to be the rainy day of July 9. No matter. All involved will ensure (weather permitting) that the show will go on—on July 23. At 5pm, a 45-minute interactive journey designed with families and young audiences in mind explores the playful approach Pilobolus takes during the collaborative process of dance-making. At 6:15pm, another 45-minute interactive excursion allows families and older adults to explore the dance company’s playful “Connecting with Balance” technique. Learn the secrets of balance—literally—as it applies to the physical demands put upon Pilobolus’ dancers. Both programs feature a performance of the Pilobolus classic, Symbiosis. For more info, click here to visit the event page on the Joyce Theater’s website.

Pilobolus in “Sweet Purgatory.” | Photo by Grant Halverson


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