Pilobolus mixes old and new at 50th anniversary show at NJPAC in Newark

pilobolus review


Members of Pilobolus perform “Ballad.”

Any modern dance company that lives to see its 50th anniversary has good reason to celebrate, especially when it continues to attract enthusiastic fans. Half a century is time enough for a society and its tastes to change, but Pilobolus keeps packing the house. It proved as much on March, when this celebrated group appeared in the Victoria Theater at NJPAC in Newark.

Though Pilobolus has had its ups and downs, it has weathered the departure of all its founders and guiding lights. A fresh and wonderfully athletic team of dancer-collaborators under the direction of Renée Jaworski and Matt Kent are busy creating new works. The newest pieces may seem formulaic, but Pilobolus has not lost its spirit of fun. Its impulsive “let’s get nekkid” attitude makes the repertoire eternally youthful. Certain pieces are tinged with mystery and evoke an atmosphere of wonder. Others are unabashedly candid. Pilobolus still delights in the human form and tests its carrying capacity with braggadocio and charm.

The pieces in its “Big Five-Oh!” program (now in its second year of touring) mix old and new, though none reaches all the way back to the troupe’s origins. Megawatt, from 2004, takes its cue from the crackling energy of its score, a mix of heavy metal and electronica. The cast seems electrified —no, electrocuted — shivering, frying and bouncing their way around the padded space. The late choreographer Jonathan Wolken zaps them over and over like a demented volunteer in a Milgram experiment, but the dancers keep coming, even after a blinding flash of light forces them back from the lip of the stage.

Behind the Shadows, a pared-down version of a work from 2009, demonstrates this company’s mastery of the shadow-screen, a mastery so complete that Pilobolus doesn’t mind pushing aside the screen to show how scampering figures in the background create the illusion.

Pilobolus, formed in 1971, brought its 50th anniversary tour to NJPAC on March 12.

On the Nature of Things takes its inspiration from an ancient Latin poem. Contemporary viewers may be excused, however, if they do not immediately recognize the “animus” and “anima” of Lucretius in the intertwined and nearly nude bodies of Hannah Klinkman and Zack Weiss, who share a small platform centerstage. Paul Liu deposits the man and woman on this miniature stage deliberately, as if conducting a scientific experiment, and, at the end, after struggling to subdue Weiss, he takes a QED bow. By this time, Klinkman and Weiss have fallen away into a frozen limbo, and any satisfaction we may take in Liu’s “proof” is undercut by gloomy intimations of impermanence and futility.

A guest artist, Native American storyteller Darlene Kascak, provides the voice-overs in Ballad, which received its premiere last year. Kascak recounts Native legends, describing a goddess who falls to earth and fearsome creatures known as Wendigos, cannibals who have lost their souls by feeding on human flesh. The legends blend together with personal and tribal histories; and in Kascak’s narrative the Wendigos become associated with soulless corporations extracting resources from the body of Mother Earth. Into this forest of allusions wanders Marlon Feliz, a childlike innocent in a blue dress, carrying a sheaf of flowers. A group of masked grotesques — presumably Wendigos — encircle her, but Feliz displays no fear. Instead of devouring her, the monsters unmask. They waft and carry her, as if her dreams were a soft bed, and the legends of her people gave her the ability to fly.

The final piece on the March 12 program, BRANCHES (2017), harked back to this company’s salad days, borrowing imagery from Moses Pendleton’s Day 2 (1980) without achieving the mind-altering vision of that classic work. Instead of ritual and phantasmagoria, BRANCHES offers a placid natural landscape in which the dancers begin by imitating the alert and darting movements of birds, and perform lyrical ablutions in a pool of light. Wavelike movements for the group give way to the topsy-turvy, leveraged partnering for which this company is most famous. Finally, the herd begins to migrate, until an unseen threat frightens them into a stampede. As animal dances go, this one is rather tame.

For more on Pilobolus, visit pilobolus.org.


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