Pilobolus makes me wonder:
Is that dancer being lifted by the neck, or is it just a clever illusion? Have I ever seen someone’s spine move like that? How strong am I?
The company, dating from 1971, mixes theatricality with Herculean strength and a surgeon’s precision to create spectacular moving images that soothe and startle. Their May 20th program at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts featured five short films interjected between five live performance pieces. Each film was thematically linked with stage piece that followed it.
First up was Welcome. The film, a panning shot of the dancers’ legs, feet, and faces, was a cheerful prelude to the body-puzzles yet to come.
By contrast, the live performance of On the Nature of Things evoked an ethereal, almost ominous mood. This duet-turned-trio, performed by two men and one woman–all of them near-nude–was danced on, around, under, and hanging from a narrow table no more than two feet long. The environment brought to my mind the story of Adam, Eve, and their departure from Eden.
Next were two animated films: The Deep, in which scrap metal materials were designed to create underwater scenarios, and Fresh Guacamole, a delightfully creative film that features the most imaginative guacamole recipe I’ve ever encountered. Monopoly-house-tomatoes and grenade-avocado probably aren’t edible, but they do nourish the imagination.
The whimsical feeling carried over into the second live performance of the evening, Wednesday Morning, 11:45, a “what if?” exploration through dance, shadow, and dark comedy. The piece was little crude, both in content and in execution. In it, a human voyeur notices two creatures that look like ostriches in a box. Ostrich passion ensues, the voyeur continues to watch, and the audience gets a chance to follow the action as it is acted out in silhouette. Eventually, things wrap up with a cringe-worthy breakfast sequence. Wednesday Morning, 11:45 is a technically and artistically risky piece, particularly because of the stage illusions that take place throughout. Unfortunately, the mechanics of these illusions were often poorly concealed.
Wind, perhaps the most poignant film of the evening, followed. Characters that could have populated a Roald Dahl storybook were at odds with a steady gust of wind as they journeyed through everyday, sometimes slapstick, situations. Wind was a beautifully composed, bittersweet look at effort, impact, and the human condition.
The third performance – Thresh/Hold – was like a danced version of the films Matrix or Inception. Onstage was a door through which the dancers ran, crawled, dragged and tossed one another. The door was on wheels and often spun around to reveal a dancer hiding from the others or a pair of dancers engaged in what looked to be a secret meeting. Thresh/Hold was an exceptional exercise in building tension and establishing a feeling of urgency. Without context for that drama or a sense of the basis of the characters’ charged relationships, though, I found it challenging to emotionally invest.
The Inconsistent Pedaler opened Act Two. It was choreographed, but retained a feeling of spontaneity, as if the dancers were moving in the way that seemed most natural to them. The result was a theatrical snapshot of the joys and pains of life, set at a surreal birthday party. It would have been a perfect end to the evening. But, the program continued!
Fifth, and last in the series of films, was Explosions. This piece gave an up-close view of everyday foods and objects being destroyed in a manner an adolescent might imagine, try, and get in trouble for doing. It was aesthetically interesting to see the results. But I can only watch so many versions of that game before the exercise strikes me as wasteful and oblivious to the needs of so many global citizens. As it concluded, Explosions left a bad taste in my mouth.
That taste intensified during Megawatt, the programs’ final live performance.
If the WWE choreographed a piece, costumed it in partnership Hot Topic, and performed it as part of the Family Values Tour, Megawatt would be the result. Though nothing is inherently wrong with any of those elements, they do not seem to align with the artistic values that Pilobolus’ body of work seems to promote. A piece performed by Pilobolus work is sensual, sometimes a little campy, but the priority always seems to be on showing the wonder of the human body. Megawatt did not honor the body in this way. I was particularly surprised at the hyper-sexualization and violence woven into Megawatt, especially the male/female partnering sections. Though some of the movement (like the “inchworm” section at the piece’s opening) was captivating, much of the movement vocabulary (variations on the dive-roll, flips, and drops face first onto the floor) was impressive, but hard to watch the number of times it was used. Nonetheless, the performers gave committed and capable performances and I commend them for their athleticism and professionalism throughout Megawatt.
If Pilobolus had to keep Megawatt in rotation, I would move its spot in the program. But, if I had my druthers, they’d lose it completely. As it stood, the work was a jarring ending to an otherwise poetic evening.