Dancing for connection in age of disconnection

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Artistic directors Renee Jaworski and Matt Kent presented the background and context to Pilobolus’s early development. Photo provided by author

On Thursday night, the Pilobolus dance company virtually presented their program “Origins” with the Jorgensen Center of the Performing Arts. 

In the age of COVID-19, the outlook of the performing arts industry has appeared increasingly bleak. This is hardly the case for Pilobolus, whose talent allows the group to pride themselves on being comfortable with experimentation and physical restraint. This solace in subversion is found by following a modern dance discipline that explicitly seeks to subvert the rigid dance technique set by their classical ballet predecessors. The modus operandi of the standard Pilobolus performance piece is to radically push the boundaries of human form while simultaneously portraying human connection. 

The “Origins” program provides background and context to Pilobolus’s early development in celebration of the company’s 50th anniversary. Presented by the company’s artistic directors Renee Jaworski and Matt Kent, the program commenced with footage of the company’s first performed piece in 1971. Though the footage quality was undeniably vintage in nature — black and white, fuzzily grainy and otherwise outdated — Pilobolus’s first performance transcends the boundaries of time. Referred to as a dance laboratory disguised as a dance class, then-Dartmouth students Steven Johnson, Jonathan Walken and Moses Pendleton dance in a pas de trois that is in a constant state of flux between spastic and smooth, separate and conjoined, while an otherworldly yet oppressive drone sound hums in the background. The founding danseurs (male dancers) momentarily sing and shout. Following the performance, the three young men are interviewed in the footage, and though they are no longer cavorting across the stage floor, they maintain their ethereality with an overarching sense of totally radical ‘70s coolness.  

The Jorgensen Center of the Performing Arts presented their program “Origins” on Thursday. The dance pictured above is the comedy performance “Walklyndon.” Photo provided by author

The Pilobolus company ventured into more genres throughout their early development in the 1970s, including the comedy performance “Walklyndon.” The piece features another trio of danseurs, with one at center stage holding a planche position while the other two struggle to sabotage the solo danseur’s hold. The two stomp on his head twice until finally resolving to trample on both his head and romp, resulting in the defeat of the solo danseur’s planche. The non-verbal human connection of resolve between the two sabotaging danseurs is the comic magic of the piece; the audience laughs even while the danseurs segue into more conventional modern dance. It is described as an “infectious, silly … study in slapstick.”  

When probed upon the comedic efficacy of the piece by attending author Robert Pranzatelli, Jaworski responded, “It’s relatable. When you put reality in a situation where people can laugh at it, it’s so much better.”  

Another such example of a lighthearted, if not surreal, piece is “Untitled.” Two unusually tall female dancers clad in crinoline dresses tenderly brush each other’s hair and gently prance across the stage while it is slowly revealed that they are walking atop hairy, brawny male feet. Their dramatic height is essentially enabled by the male danseurs beneath them. At first, this effect appears to be not unlike that of traditional performances of “Mother Ginger and the Polichinelles” in Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” but when the nude danseurs emerge from the dresses, the dance motions away from its blitheness and becomes much more sensual and passionate.  

“From a piece that was too ‘dancey’ for Pilobolus and a comic stroke seemingly too gimmicky for serious art emerges a breakthrough,” the narrator said. 

“Monkshood’s Farewell” was the first group piece performed by the company pictured above. The performances experiment with the physicality and metaphysicality of human connection. Photo provided by author

The company’s first group piece, “Monkshood’s Farewell,” is similar to “Untitled,” yet it abandons all frivolity by beginning with the physical interconnection of two groups of three dancers while grand, medieval-esque music plays. The pair of groups are contorted with each other in synecdochic fashion as to represent two distinct characters, again experimenting with both the physicality and the metaphysicality of human connection.  

These experimentations in human connection continue to be a recurring leitmotif of Pilobolus’s works. Additionally, human connection is explored self-referentially by the company, meaning that their dancers experience moments of bonding that are independent of their connection with the audience while dancing in synchrony. 

“As dancers, you end up physicalizing the philosophy,” Kent stated.  

“Our partnering is our physicalization of our philosophy of collaboration,” Jaworski replied. “So, we come together to create something that no one person could create on their own, and we do that physically, we do that philosophically.” 

Though we live in a period punctuated by disconnection, Pilobolus’s “Origins” reminds us of the value of connection through pushing the boundaries of dance tradition. Pilobolus plans on showcasing their classic dances as well as new performances soon, which can be accessed through their website pilobolus.org.  

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