Pilobolus and friends zing and drift

So the Pils’ month at the Joyce has begun, and the three premieres I was covering for the Financial Times–collaborations all, with DIY video stars, a genius juggler, and a thought-provoking European choreographer–prompted me to take the long view:

Pilobolus has always been about illusion-making: lending the human body fantastical form. Until recently, the spirit of the ’60s that spawned the four-decade-old collective from the New England outback had a tight grip on that vision. Its pieces celebrated the liberating magic of transformation–how we are free to be whatever three-headed monster we choose–more than the do-it-yourself means. But technological advances in illusionism (Photoshop, digital animation) plus the influx since 2007 at Pilobolus of outside collaborators whose medium is not always the body have shifted the troupe’s emphasis. Now it revels in its hardy, handmade retro-ness. 

Skyscrapers, a film-dance concoction low on tech and high on charm, repeats last year’s success with the YouTube lad band OK Go (1.3m views later, that first effort, All is not Lost, returns to the Joyce). In the video version of Skyscrapers, a man and woman tango languorously across an East Los Angeles streetscape that shifts colours, as do the couple’s outfits, with the song’s mood. In the live dance adaptation, various couples took turns tangoing across the film-strip landscape, which stopped and started in time with the evanescing hues. Funny and romantic, Skyscrapers captures how songs heard while driving desolate streets can serve as a defining soundtrack to the life seen outside.

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Nile Russell and Jun Kuribayashi in a sunny mood. Photo by Grant Halverson courtesy Pilobolus. 

 Collaborations always involve compromise. With Skyscrapers, the Piloboli injected a spirit of goofy fun into the proceedings but left the tango mainly intact. The premiere Azimuth took advantage of no one’s talents – neither the Pils’ shapeshifting prowess nor guest Michael Moschen’s juggling wizardry. A MacArthur “genius”, Moschen combines basic ideas about rhythm, shape and pattern to mesmerising effect. What he might have done with these body jugglers! Instead, the athletes cavorted about with balls and rings and poles in a faint imitation of his craft. 

 The thoughtful Moroccan-Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, a Sadler’s Wells associate artist, takes the art of collaboration as seriously as he does dance. For Automaton, he translates Pilobolus’s organic metaphors into more pressing terms….

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Self-examination: Automaton by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Photo by Oriel Pe’er for Pilobolus.

For what those terms are and how they serve as commentary on where Pilobolus started and where it might go, click here. 

 Speaking of Pilobolus’s future, with each passing year I’m more struck by how the format of the old-fashioned modern dance concert–three repertory pieces, each about 20 minutes long– doesn’t suit this troupe–neither the performers’ skills nor the ideas or dramas that might make use of them. One third of an hour is just too long. Four minutes–the length of a pop song–is more like it. I think that’s why the ensemble has had such a success with the band OK GO–and with their shadowplay at the Oscars.

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