Pilobolus at the Ferst Center

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The contemporary dance company Pilobolus is a young, 7-member company that presents new and now-classic creative art works from the company’s forty-three years of collaborations. The performance was everything a “mixed repertoire” performance should be: varied, exciting, innovative, and offering something for nearly everyone.

The dance company Pilobolus is named after a barnyard fungus that propels its spores with extraordinary speed, accuracy, and strength…and the Ferst Center audience saw all three. Pilobolus was originally formed by four non-dancer students at Dartmouth College in 1971, emerging from a project assigned in their beginning modern dance class. The early work was very acrobatic, and often involved using multiple bodies to create the illusion of a different creature or object. You may have seen examples of this technique in their commercials for Toyota or Hyundai. “Ocellus,” first choreographed in 1972, makes use of this concept. It is as fresh and interesting today as it was when it was created; the audience does not have the impression of watching a “museum piece” built on outdated movement, as can occur with some historical works.

The company’s website bills its workshops as “not training in dance but rather in methods of effective group creativity that use physical expression as their medium.” Co-Dance Captain Nile H. Russell says the company looks for dancers who are not necessarily perfect technicians, but who have a deep well of creativity the company can tap. The concert at the Ferst Center is an illustration of this approach. The dancers were on stage when the audience arrived, warming up and experimenting with weight and support, synchronous and asynchronous movement, and team-building, all critical to their performance, and inviting the audience to share vicariously in the creative process. The movement works were interspersed with video presentations, including Robert Holbrook’s whimsical film “Kites,” featuring fighter kites that reminded me of a squadron of the Thunderbirds accompanied by the Flower Duet from the opera “Lakhme;” and the film “Explosions,” by Dumt and Farligt, which can best be described as a fascinating and perversely beautiful cross between “Myth Busters” and Gallagher. Pilobolus does not ever give us conventional dance, but their gifts are creative, cerebral, and captivating.

Today’s company utilizes trained dancers, although some began their dance training later than is usual. They are still active collaborators in the choreographic process, as noted in the program notes for three of the five pieces. A perfect example of the company’s unorthodox work is the humorous “[esc],” collaboratively created by three of the artistic directors, illusionist/comedians Penn & Teller, and the dancers. The piece was inspired by the life and escapes of Harry Houdini, and made use of magic tricks, gymnastic feats, and abundant wit. A little humorous whining about air travel today was included, along with props that included a giant duffle bag, a 13-foot pole, a chair and duct tape, and a large wooden box “built by audience members” with padlocks and shipping straps.

The more recently created “Automaton” was a fascinating piece that utilized three 40-pound mirrors to expand the shapes and bodies visible on the stage. The dancers wove in and out of the mirrors, moving them around the stage while seeming to appear and disappear. Highlights included a series of very lovely duets and the exploration of the limitless possibilities of movement begun by a dancer hooking ankles with another and then initiating movement from that connection.

The company’s “Shadowland,” an evening-length show currently touring internationally, was represented by “The Transformation,” a work performed live, but entirely in silhouettes projected onto a giant screen.

The final piece on the program, and my personal favorite, was “Licks.” For me, this new piece exemplifies everything that is riveting about a Pilobolus performance: It is fast, athletic, and staggering in its genius. So dangerous that the dancers had to wear protective body and eye gear, the work made use of heavy training ropes in various lengths to generate moving designs. The ropes were in the air, on the stage floor, wrapped around dancers, and everywhere in between. Bodies were ducking under them, leaping over them, and trapped by them. More than an extension of the dancers, the ropes took on lives and characters of their own. Amazingly, nobody dropped a rope, and nobody was hit, although that was surely not the case during the development of the work. The timing required for the intricate interceptions and connections was impeccable, and the strength needed to wield the ropes for the duration of the piece was astonishing. When it was over, the audience leaped to its collective feet and gave perhaps the longest standing ovation in which I have been privileged to participate.

The Ferst Center always provides quality art experiences.  In addition to the concert, the audience was treated to a photography exhibit by Keiko Guest in the Richards Gallery. The metal prints of dancer images were beautifully executed, with a three-dimensional feel and a multi-layered creativity that paired well with the Pilobolus performance. The Ferst is definitely a venue to watch and attend. You can wait for the announcement of their 2014-15 season at www.ferstcenter.gatech.edu.

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