Pilobolus’ program begins with a film short about their namesake, titled Pilobolus Is a Fungus. The playbill offers further education, explaining that the, arguably, repugnant spores are propelled with “extraordinary speed, accuracy and strength”. The message here is that these artists look for inspiration literally everywhere. Program A is a relentless testament to that mission.

Pilobolus, [esc] with Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern, Matt Del Rosario © Grant Halverson
Pilobolus, [esc] with Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern, Matt Del Rosario
© Grant Halverson

Automaton moves away from the natural, organic world immediately. Industrial sounds overlap to rouse the dancers out of stillness bit by bit, isolating body parts as small as individual fingers. This contemporary style grows into larger movement and incorporates three full-length mirrored panels. As the movement becomes less mechanical, the mirrors are manipulated into different configurations. These mobile set pieces change the shape of the stage and distort the audience’s view – blocking entire bodies at times while exposing them from different angles at others. The mirror is even held up to the audience, breaking the fourth wall in an interesting reversal of roles. It’s the first of many surprises.

Elaborate sets are constructed between pieces, including a large raised platform that occupies half the stage during All Is Not Lost. The curtain never closes, and when the stage is finally set, a projection screen dominates the opposite half of the space. Suddenly the screen is filled with a face – it’s a live feed, set up underneath the clear floor of the platform. All Is Not Lost is presented simultaneously from two perspectives, thanks to this clever use of technology. Six dancers sliding, bending and contorting over the camera and jumping on and off the table create a spectacle on their own, but it’s hard to ignore the view on the projection.

The symmetrical tangle of moving limbs resembles a giant human kaleidoscope. Vignettes are established and, just as quickly, destroyed. For example, the dancers first crawl across the platform in one direction, miming that they’re climbing a mountain, single file. But just when they reach the top, gravity gets the best of them (they reverse direction and alter the pantomime) and they’re sliding down a steep hill. Mixing media in this instance allows the company to choreograph movement on a plane most people can never use; it allows them to warp the audience’s perception of gravity.

Ocellus closes the first act and returns to Pilobolus’ roots, with choreography from 1972 by four of the founding members. It’s also a chance for the audience to focus on these magnificent dancers against a clear stage. Contact between the four men is a significant theme in Ocellus and there’s rarely a time when two people aren’t touching. Their bodies interlock back to chest, chest to thigh, and in every combination, so that they occasionally appear to be part of one whole organism. The dancers’ sheer strength is unmistakable. One man hovers parallel to the ground, supported only by his hands on two others’ shoulders. Such feats may be more familiar (or at least believable) in today’s era of super-athletes, but Ocellus is a 40-year-old creation grounded in the idea of obliterating physical limitations.

After the intermission, Tuesday’s audience was treated to a special appearance by the famous duo Penn and Teller. Ever boisterous, Penn narrated their aptly named collaboration, [esc]. It’s no surprise that Pilobolus’ performers play their parts to a T to drive audience anticipation. But, while the choreographed illusions are stunning, much of the magic of [esc] takes place out of sight. Two dancers spend almost the entire piece incapacitated – Benjamin Coalter and Jun Kuribayashi in a box and a duffle bag, respectively. However, the decision to include skills totally foreign to most modern dancers is not out of character for this company. The overtly sexual pole dance combines all of these ideas and yet has many beautiful moments.

Despite a very strong program, Day Two (1980) steals the show. It’s the kind of dance that changes the energy in the theater. The six dancers are nearly naked except for a nude thong, mend and women alike. But unlike the skin displayed in [esc], these same bodies are like mobile works of art in this explosive, physically demanding piece of choreography. While it isn’t all about fast jumps and lifts, the slower sections don’t offer any relief putting their muscles to the test. In one hypnotic section Eriko Jimbo and Jordan Kriston hold themselves rigid in mid-air, half sitting, half leaning against poles carried by their partners. Swooping and dipping across the stage they make it possible for human bodies to float through space.

As Pilobolus continues their psychedelic journey they may find themselves with a broader fan base than ever before. Their vision and ingenuity keep pushing the limits of modern dance. In this age of supposed enlightenment, it’s exciting to see this company is still welcome in Manhattan instead of, perhaps, another borough.

****1