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Vignettes of 50 years

Pilobolus has become synonymous with pushing boundaries, both in the physical and the thematic. The company’s run at New York City’s Joyce Theater, which culminated their Big Five-OH! Tour—a belated-by-Covid celebration of the company’s 50th anniversary—was a reaffirmation of this mission. During their nearly three-week engagement at the mainstay modern dance venue, the company presented two distinct programs, each work a vignette of Pilobolus’s ethos.

Performance

 Pilobolus: Big Five-OH! tour, Program B

Place

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, July 11, 2023

Words

Sophie Bress

Marlon Feliz, Nathaniel Buchsbaum, Hannah Klinkman, Zach Weiss in Pilobolus' “Awaken Heart.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

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Program B, which was presented on the evening of July 28, opened boldly with “On the Nature of Things,” a 2014 work danced by Nathaniel Buchsbaum, Marlon Feliz, and Quincy Ellis. At first, the most apparent thing onstage was the dancer’s costumes—or lack thereof. But these outfits never came off as shocking. Rather, the lighting effects were such that the dancers took on the appearance of sentient statues, their movements and interactions posing an important question: How do we ascribe meaning to our bodies? As the dancers moved atop the small, raised platform where the majority of the work takes place, counterbalancing each other’s weight, weaving in and out of one another’s negative spaces—and as the choreography shifted from manipulative, sensual, to almost painful—the answer was approached from many angles. 

As the company dancers emerged in yellow bodysuits and bright-colored gym shorts for the next work, “Walklyndon,” the mood of the evening shifted significantly. In this 1971 work , which is a signature for the company, the dancers pass across the stage, wing to wing. They crash together, becoming stuck to each other in exaggerated positions, having interactions that, somehow, would look equally as at home in a child’s cartoon as they do onstage. Through these interactions, we glimpse, from the outside, the absurdity of the everyday and the ways we connect with one another—expectedly and unexpectedly. 

Marlon Feliz, Hannah Klinkman, Zack Weiss, Nathaniel Buchsbaum in Pilobolus' “Awaken Heart.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

The evening continued with the New York premiere of “Awaken Heart,” yet another tone switch from the preceding works. “Awaken Heart” was distinctly softer—it felt like a danced lullaby. Created by Pilobolus’s co-artistic directors Renée Jaworski and Matt Kent, former Pilobolus member Gaspard Louis, and in collaboration with Pilobolus dancers Nathaniel Buchsbaum, Marlon Feliz, Hannah Klinkman, and Zack Weiss,Awaken Heart” felt like a shroud of safety and security, an easy-to-watch work that gave to the audience, asking very little in return. The dancers were effortlessly effortful—watching them glide and flow felt as natural as they looked. 

“Untitled,” the next piece on the program, returned the evening to humor, albeit with a dose of underlying commentary.Untitled” follows two ball gown-clad women (Marlon Feliz and Hannah Klinkman) as they mature from young women, to mothers, to old women—and throughout, the women rise to twice their heights, supported by two male company dancers whose legs are the only thing visible beneath the women’s skirts. 

As New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning wrote in her 1993 review of the work, “One can watch the dance as magical shape play and illusion or as social commentary.” In 2023, it’s hard to watch “Untitled” without picking up on a gender role-related undertone. The work touched on the male gaze, but the women—instead of appearing manipulated and used—had a certain power, emphasized in no small part by their towering height. And though the men beneath the skirts were supporting the women and putting them on their high pedestal, when the men are revealed to be nude beneath the skirts, the women’s dresses, too, became a sort of power—both in their ability to shroud and protect, and, at one point, in their transformation to makeshift thrones. 

Pilobolus in “Sweet Purgatory.” Photograph by Grant Halverson

Switching yet again, to humor—with a hefty dose of joy—the evening continued with “Behind the Shadows,” which builds on the company’s 2009 work, “Shadowland.” “Behind the Shadows” is a summer camp game come to life, as the dancers, hidden behind a semi-opaque screen, use their bodies to create the most complex shadow puppets imaginable. The accompanying music, by David Poe, contains the oft-repeated refrain “If it gives you joy, you don’t have to explain it,” which becomes both a meaningful sentiment and an explanation for how the work ought to be viewed. 

The evening ended with “Sweet Purgatory,” a 1991 work created by early Pilobolus company members Robby Barnett, Alison Chase, Jonathan Wolken, and Michael Tracy, in collaboration with Adam Battelstein, Rebecca Jung, Kent Lindemer, Vernon Scott, John-Mario Sevilla, and Jude Woodcock. Given the wide range of feelings (and taboos) addressed over the course of Program B, “Sweet Purgatory” was a quiet end to the evening. The work, which came across as far more classical and tempered than the majority of the evening’s repertory, placed the focus on physicality and subtle acrobatics—virtuosity with a postmodern sensibility—representing the company’s raison d’être in a new—yet not entirely disparate—way. 

Sophie Bress


Sophie Bress is an arts and culture journalist based in Salt Lake City, Utah. In her writing, she focuses on placing the arts within our cultural conversations and recognizing art makers as essential elements of our societal framework. Sophie holds a Master’s degree from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. She has been published in Dance Magazine, L.A. Dance Chronicle, The Argonaut, Festival Advisor, and more.

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