The renowned creative collective known as Pilobolus had been scheduled to return to Palm Beach County in April 2020 after a four-year absence. Unfortunately, they ended up being the first show to be canceled at the Duncan Theatre because of COVID-19.
They were booked to return in February 2021, but once again their performances had to be canceled. Finally, this year on March 4 and 5, the troupe returned to the Duncan Theatre’s stage with its celebratory tour, called The Big Five Oh!
It is hard to imagine that this quirky, rebellious dance company that rattled everyone’s idea of what dance was back in the 1970s is now middle-aged. Golden Jubilee Year or not, Pilobolus’s ability to astonish its audience with its trademark athleticism and ingenuity has not aged a bit, even though the flow of the program March 5 was uneven.
The company, which consists of just six dancers (two women and four men), presented a variety of works created over the years. Some of the pieces, which ranged greatly in style, did not hold up as well as others but the performance did start off impressively with On the Nature of Things (2014).
This astonishing trio was inserted in the program last minute due to a dancer injury and therefore was not listed in the program, but it is a distinctive work and it is the one that I remember best from the program that they presented back in 2016.
With mesmerizing skill, the three dancers (Nathaniel Buchsbaum, Quincy Ellis and Marlon Feliz), with their bare buttocks and breasts revealed, gleamed like beautiful marble sculptures moving ever so slowly to strike a cantilevered pose, relay a silent message or to stop in the shape of a broken artifact.
Following On the Nature of Things, there was a comic interlude – a brief solo – that was an excerpt from The Empty Suitor, which was choreographed in 1980 by Michael Tracy, one of the founders of Pilobolus, and was performed by Paul Liu “with a little help from his friends” – as the audio announcement said before the piece. Liu, after being introduced by his friends (three men with shiny black top hats) and tempted by a woman who offered bites from a perhaps poisonous red apple lodged in her mouth, danced an acrobatic solo on a row of rolling tubes while sometimes balancing a wooden bench to which he had somehow become adhered – all to the tune of Sweet Georgia Brown.
Compared to the substantial work that preceded it, this excerpt seemed too short, too out of place and didn’t really stand on its own. It appeared to just be a filler in the program so that the dancers could get ready for the next piece.
The next work, Shizen, choreographed in 1978 by company founders Alison Chase and Moses Pendleton, was trademark Pilobolus style but, at this point in the program, it was difficult to stay fully engaged because of its slow pace.
Two figures – a man and a woman – spaced far apart on a very darkly lit stage executed extremely sparse movement. Though the shapes that their bodies formed were quite startling, it seemed overly drawn out. Eventually, the two dancers merged and began to create fascinating kaleidoscopic, cell-like shapes. As Marlon Feliz latched onto Zach Weiss’s upper body, it was as if they had melted into one form that divided and multiplied like a cell.
The newest work on the program was created last year by former Pilobolus dancers Renée Jaworski and Matt Kent, who have been co-artistic directors of the company since 2011, in collaboration with the company members who performed it March 5. Behind the Shadows was inspired by Shadowland (2009), the hugely popular evening work that helped Pilobolus expand by performing at the Olympic Games, the Oscars as well as creating a successful TV commercial for Toyota.
Shadowland is a whimsical story that is illustrated by silhouettes that the dancers make that are projected against a giant screen. Using their bodies, simple props and varying their distance from the screen, the performers build and animate many different characters from giants to animals.
Behind the Shadows was a trying-to-be-upbeat, behind-the-scenes version of how the magic of Shadowland was made but it should have come with a spoiler alert. We were shown exactly how the projections were created as we saw the dancers making their human sculptures into characters and animals both behind and without the screen. To have the Shadowland illusions so unceremoniously exposed was sad. I wish I had not seen Behind the Shadow because now, for me, the magic that was Shadowland is gone forever.
The final work, Untitled (1975), was a collaborative piece created by the six founders of Pilobolus – Robby Barnett, Alison Chase, Martha Clarke, Moses Pendleton, Michael Tracy and Jonathan Wolken – and performed by all six members of the company – Buchsbaum, Ellis, Feliz, Liu, Weiss and Hannah Klinkman.
It was a somewhat zany portrayal of polite courtship and according to the program, it was intended to open the show rather than close the show. In this portrayal, courtship was a subtle state of war. Two women, dressed in summer Victorian garb, seemed charmingly feminine at the beginning, gesturing and smiling to each other as they adjusted their long skirts. Suddenly, they rose to be 9 feet tall, standing on a set of hairy men’s legs that propelled them across the stage in a disconnected manner. Were they two different halves or a whole?
The giant women were then pursued by two dapper gents in vested summer suits and top hats. The ladies seemed content to be promenaded around by the suitors who were half their size. At one point, they stopped and ejected two, fully nude males from out under their skirts, who littered the stage like huge stillborn babies. Humor was evident as the women lifted their skirts and covered the clothed men – absorbing them like a set of praying mantises, but this time, when they were lifted to their 9-foot height, the men’s trousered legs faced backwards.
There were many exchanges that happened under those skirts and as the curtain came down, the women had lured all the men under their dresses. Then, as they settled back into the folds of their skirts, they were rocked gently back and forth as if they were sitting on a veranda on a hot day, smiling and sipping lemonade just as polite as can be.
The Big Five Oh! let me down a bit. Over the years, I’ve seen Pilobolus quite a few times. I’m not exactly sure what I had been expecting from this celebratory show but I thought it would be something more constructed, something more cohesive. Maybe it was the title of the show that led me to think I would see a special presentation made from a delightful patchwork of their greatest hits.
Instead, I saw a somewhat random selection of older repertory works and a remix spoiler of one of their most enchanting and inventive full-length works – it wasn’t much of a celebration for the large collective of outstanding dance artists who have made Pilobolus what it is today.