In 1971, three men met while enrolled in a dance composition class taught by Alison Becker Chase at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, Connecticut. These three who went on to create what became Pilobolus were English literature major and cross-country skier, Moses Pendleton; philosophy major and fencer, Jonathan Wolken, and pre-med student and pole vaulter, Steve Johnson. The founding members of that group included Robby Barnett, Alison Chase, Martha Clarke, Moses Pendleton, Michael Tracy, and Jonathan Wolken. The rest, as they say, is dance history.
When Pilobolus made its New York City debut in the early 1970s, I had no idea that 50 years later I would be attending another presentation of this incredibly agile, athletic and creative company in Orange, California with works by at least two of the original members of Pilobolus, Robby Barnett and Jonathan Wolken. Following a Leap of the Arts Residency working with students in the Chapman University Department of Dance, Pilobolus performed for one night only in the beautiful Marybelle and Sebastian P. Musco Center for the Arts on Thursday, February, 23, 2023. Now led by Artistic Director Matt Kent who has worked with Pilobolus since 1996 as a dancer, collaborator, creative director and choreographer, the company has not lost the ability to entertain or amaze audiences around the world.
The evening started with a work that was re-staged in memory of Jonathan Wolken who passed away in 2010. Megawatt was a great opener to warm up the audience but it was not the strongest work on the program. It showcased the now trademark agility, precision timed tumbling passes, and an endless diet of inventive lifts that we have come to expect from Pilobolus. While I was impressed that human bodies can accomplish such feats, my interest, however, was not held by the attempts at humor that were borderline slap stick. A megawatt is a unit of power equal to one million watts and there were movements that reflected a performer shocking or being electrocuted by another. What stood out were the simulated fist punches into a dancer’s stomach that led to a wraparound lift. Sadly, these were repeated so often that they lost any element of surprise.
Set to music by Primus, Radiohead, and Squarepusher, Megawatt was choreographed in 2004 by Jonathan Wolken in collaboration with Mark Fucik, Andy Herro, Renée Jaworski, Matt Kent, Jennifer Macavinta, Manelich Minniefee, and Matthew Thornton. The current cast included: Nathaniel Buchsbaum, Quincy Ellis, Marlon Feliz, Hannah Klinkman, Paul Liu, and Zack Weiss. Costumes that hinted at reanimated humans were by Liz Prince and the very skillful Lighting was by Neil Peter Jampolis.
Behind the Shadows took one back to their childhood making shadow puppets on one’s bedroom wall. With the use of backlighting and a screen, Nathaniel Buchsbaum, Quincy Ellis, Marlon Feliz, Hannah Klinkman, Paul Liu, and Zack Weiss succeeded in portraying a giant hand reaching down to tickle then sculpture a woman into a dog and back to her original self before she was lifted up into the sky. As the screen slowly rotated, the audience got a brief glimpse at the performers positioning themselves for the next few illusions: an elephant, a seahorse and a seated alligator belching after drinking a soda can that sported a radioactive hazard symbol on its side. This was indeed a work for the children in the audience as well as the young at heart.
Behind the Shadows was created in 2021 by Renée Jaworski, Matt Kent in collaboration with Nathaniel Buchsbaum, Quincy Ellis, Marlon Feliz, Hannah Klinkman, Paul Liu, and Zack Weiss. The music was by David Poe with Lighting Design by Yannick Godts.
Created in 2014 by Robby Barnett, Renée Jaworski, Matt Kent, and Itamar Kubovy in collaboration with Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern, Benjamin Coalter, Matt Del Rosario, Eriko Jimbo, Jordan Kriston, Jun Kuribayashi, Derion Loman, Nile Russell, and Mike Tyus, On The Nature Of Things took on the look of a moving sculpture portraying the making of and God’s relationship to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Topless and wearing only flesh colored dance belts, Hannah Klinkman, Paul Liu, and Zack Weiss maneuvered through one intricate pose after another while perched upon a small, circular black table that could not have been more than four feet in diameter.
With the aid of exquisite lighting by Neil Peter Jampolis along with music by Vivaldi; Michelle DiBucci and Edward Bilous; Mezzo Soprano, Clare McNamara; and Violin Solo, Krystof Witek, On The Nature Of Things was gorgeous to witness.
Following intermission: via movement, a soundscape by Ben Sollee, costumes by Valerie St. Pierre Smith, and spoken word by Darlene Kascak of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, Pilobolus gave the audience a brief glimpse into the history of indigenous people in this country, how awful they were treated and how in spite of that, they still maintain hope that we all will not destroy Mother Earth. Kascak speaks of legendary creatures called Wendigos. Wikipedia describes a Wendigo as “a giant humanoid with a heart of ice; a foul stench and said to invoke feelings of insatiable greed/hunger, the desire to cannibalize other humans, and the propensity to commit murder in those that fall under its influence”.
As the work progressed and costumes changed, one came to realize that in The Ballad, the Wendigos are those who slaughtered, took away the land and tried to eradicate the languages, customs and cultures of America’s indigenous people. In other words, this nation’s conquerors whose tyrannical oppression of an entire people who were here eons before they arrived. It was an eye-opening and powerful work created in 2022 by Darlene Kascak, Renée Jaworski, and Matt Kent in collaboration with Eryn Barnes, Nathaniel Buchsbaum, Quincy Ellis, Marlon Feliz, Hannah Klinkman, Paul Liu, and Zack Weiss. The stunning cast included Nathaniel Buchsbaum, Marlon Feliz, Hannah Klinkman, Paul Liu, and Zack Weiss.
The intense lighting for The Ballad was by Brian Tovar and props were by Yannick Godts. An interesting note: Additional support from this work was provided by the Institute of American Indian Studies.
Branches was created in 2017 by Renée Jaworski and Matt Kent in collaboration with Itamar Kubovy, Mark Fucik and Antoine Banks-Sullivan, Nathaniel Buchsbaum, Krystal Butler, Isabella Diaz, Heather Jean Favretto, and Jacob Michael Warren. It is an extremely well made fluff piece and program closer enhanced by delightful and well-timed humor. In short, it is about the migration of a flock of six birds that consists of them settling near a lake, bathing, playing, flying in ever-changing formations, and mating before suddenly flying off into the sky.
The cast of Branches included the entire company of performers Nathaniel Buchsbaum, Quincy Ellis, Marlon Feliz, Hannah Klinkman, Paul Liu, and Zack Weiss. The music was by David Van Tieghem, David Darling, Riley Lee, Olivier Messiaen, and Stuart Bogie with Sound Design by David Van Tieghem. The flesh colored costumes were by Liz Prince and the atmospheric lighting was beautifully designed by Thom Weaver.
From what I saw at the Musco Center, Pilobolus could easily be around for another 50 plus years. One hopes so.
For more information about Pilobolus, please visit their website.
To see The Musco Center for the Arts full season lineup, please visit their website.
Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Pilobolus’ 50th Anniversary – Photo by John Kane