Pilobolus Dance Theater defies categorization. Known for their physical feats and visual treats, they've created their own brand of modern dance. The company, now in its 39th year, visited Madison, Wisconsin last night and in the vast Overture Hall, they presented an athletic, inventive, diverse and sometimes thought-provoking concert of six works.
Upon occasion, Pilobolus dances carry a message. But most often they provide high entertainment value. Their stylistic assortment started off with the rough-and-tumble Redline, made in 2009 in the Pilobolus traditional collaborative spirit---by numerous choreographers. Starting in a stiff straight line, then slowly swinging their heads, then arms, then legs, six dancers progressed downstage. Random hunched over walking patterns evolved into an explosion of hurtling bodies. Dancers sporting red and black wrestling shorts and boxing boots ran at each other at top speed and launched themselves over backwards, airborne, in between athletic break dance riffs.
Hitched (2009), depicted the story of a newly married couple friskily chasing after each other at first, then with linked arms in an undoable knot, exploring every possible way of separating themselves from each other. Crawling in, around and through each others arms in unfeasible contortions, the tiny Eriko Jimbo and lanky Christopher Whitney worked hard to escape their bond and finally did briefly break the link. In this moment of separation, years seemed to pass. The couple slowly and delicately returned to an embrace, and each wrapping one leg around the other, they exited together, alternating their hobbling steps, sharing each others weight.
In Dog-ID, also a newly minted work, a cartoonish shadow puppet display created an Alice-in-Wonderland feel. Dancers Nile Russell and Annika Sheaff moved behind a screen, revealing only their shadows, with Sheaff brilliantly transforming herself into a dog (yes, a dog!) complete with playful paws and wagging tail, and even a tongue that licked the hand that petted her.
The weakest piece on the program, Rushes (2007) suffered from stagnant dark lighting and slow moving surrealist action. Throughout, half a dozen dancers manipulated a dozen chairs, occasionally to great effect. In a Busby Berkeley-inspired moment, they circled with the chairs facing out, gently lifting each one with a wave effect as they passed downstage. Unfortunately, this dance closed the show and the appealing moments were few and far between. When the minimal action was completely halted for a tiny projection of random images on a video screen, even the captivating idea that followed, of movement mimicking the grace of ice skating, could not save it.
A more suitable ending would have been the engaging classic 1971 Walklyndon. In this farcical romp, the full company paraded the stage clad in yellow unitards and blue gym shorts, as if headed to some retro health club for a workout. They manipulated each others paths, bumped chests, ran on each others prone backs, and jumped over and under each other, all without breaking their stride.
By far the most compelling piece on the program occurred early in the evening. The gorgeous ritualistic Gnomen (1997) featured a quartet of sleek and powerful men, each taking turns being manipulated and seamlessly lifted by the others. In one seemingly incomprehensible moment, Whitney balanced on his head, feet pointing to the air, suspended only by a man on either side holding his wrists. Then lifted and carried by the wrists, Whitney maintained his inverted position without flinching, drawing a collective gasp from the audience. Jun Kuribayashi’s turn to be supported, defied physics. Frozen overhead with his body horizontal, he was supported on either end—one dancer at his head, one at his feet. When a third dancer stepped underneath and supported him at the hips, the other two walked away. As if levitating, Kuribayashi effortlessly remained horizontal slowly being pivoted by his lifter. Later, his three supporters guided him gently to the floor. Then arm in arm, they lifted him with their flexed toes and swung their legs side to side, gently rocking Kuribayashi like a baby in a cradle. As the piece ended, quietly the four men acknowledged each other with a simple bow of the head.