I’ve seen a whole lot of Pilobolus Dance Theatre over the years, but familiarity has yet to breed contempt, which is why I was sitting on the aisle at the Joyce Theater last night, watching with delight as they performed two new works, “Star-Cross’d” and “Wedlock,” and two old standbys, “Walklyndon” and “Day Two.”
As always, I was happy (but no longer surprised) to see that much of the crowd consisted of New Yorkers who don’t make a habit of going to dance concerts. Pilobolus’ light-hearted style, an unabashedly sexy combination of dance, gymnastics, and performance art, appeals not just to dance buffs but to audiences of all kinds. You don’t have to know anything about dance to revel in a piece like “Day Two,” in which the dancers take their curtain calls while spinning and sliding crazily across a water-covered stage. The setting is pure Pilobolus, a hot, steamy jungle of the mind inhabited by six all-but-naked people who enact a series of mysterious rituals apparently intended to propitiate the god of fertility. At the end, the stage floor seems to buckle and the dancers suddenly rip through it, an effect as exhilarating as the launch of a rocket.
But is it really dance? Even Arlene Croce, a longtime admirer of the troupe, insisted on calling Pilobolus “a company of acrobatic mimes rather than dancers,” and the distinction is more than mere hair-splitting. What Pilobolus does is not ballet (though its members frequently fly through the air) and not quite modern dance (though they usually perform barefoot). The group’s movement vocabulary is designed not to show off the body in motion but to exploit its sculptural properties in order to create theatrical illusion–hence the trompe l’oeil effects that are Pilobolus’ trademark.
Arguments about the definition of dance are about as productive as arguments about the meaning of life. Yet this ambiguity is part of what makes Pilobolus’ work so interesting. The elusive beauty of the company’s sleight-of-torso tricks, combined with a consistently imaginative use of music (much of it popular) and a generous touch of slapstick (if cream pies were cheaper, Pilobolus would throw them), also has much to do with its accessibility. When the curtain goes up and a half-dozen handsome dancers come running on stage and start tying themselves into exotic knots and strange, almost-familiar shapes, only a hopeless prig would worry about whether the results are really, truly dance.
Alison Chase’s “Star-Cross’d,” announced as a “premiere-in-progress,” turned out to be a lovely exercise in seemingly plotless lyricism with a show-stopping opening tableau: the lights come up on five dancers who appear to be floating high above the stage, upside down. (Presumably the Shakespearean angle will become clearer as the piece continues to take shape.) First viewings of unfinished works tend to be deceptive, but “Star-Cross’d” already looks like a keeper to me. Jonathan Wolken’s “Wedlock,” by contrast, is a suite of eight short vignettes about relationships, some jokey and others serious, fun to watch but not nearly as compelling as “Star-Cross’d.” As for the classics, “Walklyndon,” a zany bit of Ernie Kovacs-like pantomime danced (so to speak) in silence, is as infallibly funny as ever, while “Day Two,” the company’s signature piece de facto, continues to cast its inscrutable spell. Renee Jaworski, the company’s resident blonde, was slightly injured, so Rebecca Jung, my all-time favorite Pilobolus alumna, came back to dance her old part in “Day Two.” It was pure pleasure to see her striking face and strong, shapely legs and feet again after an absence of several years.
This is the last week of Pilobolus’ annual month-long run at the Joyce, and all three programs will be seen at least once more between now and Saturday night. I’ll be back on Saturday afternoon. When it comes to Pilobolus, once is never enough for me.