I’ve been a fan of Pilobolus Dance Theatre ever since I started to look at the dance, and my admiration deepened when I began writing about ballet and modern dance in 1990. From then on I had frequent occasion to write about Pilobolus, whose unique brand of theatrical trompe l’oeil is easy to describe but hard to explain, as I rediscovered time and again during my tenure as dance critic of the New York Daily News:
The lights go down, the curtain goes up, and six half-clothed dancers come running on stage and immediately start tying themselves into exotic knots and strange, almost-familiar shapes. Are you dreaming? Are you trapped inside a surrealist painting? No, you’re just watching Pilobolus Dance Theatre, a group so witty and imaginative that it has flourished for a quarter-century…
Pilobolus Dance Theatre is among the most popular and successful companies in the history of American dance. The members of Pilobolus have twisted themselves into indescribably kinky knots everywhere from the Edinburgh Festival to The Tonight Show and Sesame Street, accompanied by everything from bluegrass and rap to Corelli and Carmina Burana. Their wry, often light-hearted style–an eye-popping combination of dance, gymnastics and performance art–appeals not just to modern-dance buffs but to audiences of all kinds.
I got to know Jonathan Wolken, one of the group’s founders, when I spent a couple of days watching Pilobolus audition new dancers at New York’s City Center, then wrote a piece for the New York Times about the experience. We hit it off, and a year later Jonathan and his colleagues allowed me to be a fly on the wall as they created a new dance in collaboration with Maurice Sendak. That unforgettable experience led not only to another piece for the Times, but to my appearing in Last Dance, Mirra Banks’ 2002 documentary about the creation of A Selection, the Pilobolus-Sendak dance that I’d seen being made three years earlier.
I never got to know Jonathan more than casually–he was prickly and self-possessed in a way that I found intimidating–but I liked and admired him and was always pleased to chat with him about Pilobolus and its doings whenever the group was in town for one of its summer seasons at the Joyce Theater. Alas, the demands of my work as a drama critic forced me to spend less time attending dance performances, and so I was taken completely by surprise when I learned last night that Jonathan had died at the absurdly untimely age of sixty.
I find it hard to grasp that one of the founding members of a performing ensemble that has long been so much a part of my aesthetic life is no longer with us. The good news–if you can call it that–is that the dances that Jonathan helped to create, like Pilobolus itself, will survive him for a very long time to come. Even so, his death tears a hole in the world, one that for me is larger still because he was only six years my senior. I always thought of Jonathan Wolken as an elder statesman of dance. Somehow it never occurred to me that a mere half-generation separated us. The not-so-old order passeth….
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Jonathan’s New York Times obituary is here.