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Dance Review: Pilobolus and the joy of re-creation

During their single night performance at White Bird, the celebrated dance company presented new collaborations and revisited classic works stretching back to its founding in 1971.

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Company dancers perform "Sweet Purgatory," which was commissioned by the American Dance Festival for Pilobolus’s 20th anniversary in 1991. Photo by Grant Halverson.
Company dancers perform “Sweet Purgatory,” which was commissioned by the American Dance Festival for Pilobolus’s 20th anniversary in 1991. Photo by Grant Halverson.

The internationally renowned dance company Pilobolus performed their one-night-only Portland presentation of re:CREATION on Wednesday, October 4 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. As the audience entered the theatre, six dancers of the company, whose mission statement reads, “Create, perform, and preserve dances,” “Expand and diversify audiences,” and “Teach dancers, non-dancers, and organizations,” warmed up on stage. After a few more hops and a group huddle, they exited, and the curtain came down. The house was abuzz with energy as we received a welcome from some familiar faces.

White Bird’s former executive directors and founders Paul King and Walter Jaffe appeared alongside new executive director Graham Cole for a final curtain speech. While King and Jaffe won’t be greeting audiences or acting as executive directors any longer, they explained, they would still participate actively as co-presidents of White Bird’s board of directors. The audience gave one final goodbye to the trusty red shoes they grew used to seeing as Pilobolus, one of the first companies to be presented by White Bird, danced a short ode in their honor. The performers jumped and ran behind a white screen, using light illusion to form the words “Paul” and  “Walter,” as well as the shape of a bird, with their bodies as the audience exclaimed in amusement. The two founders were met with a standing ovation before leaving the stage for the final time.

Based today in Connecticut, Pilobolus — whose spellbinding photographs by Lois Greenfield plastered many a dancers’ room in the early 2000s — was formed at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire by Moses Pendleton, Jonathan Wolken, and Steve Johnson: three non-dance students inspired by their composition class teacher, Alison Becker Chase, to create a dance piece. They called that piece “Pilobolus.” Today, Pendleton is the artistic director of the dance company Momix, presented by White Bird earlier this year, and Wolken and Johnson have since passed the Pilobolus torch to current directors Matt Kent and Renée Jaworski.

Since its inception, Pilobolus has been honored with a 2012 Grammy® Award Nomination and a Primetime Emmy® Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cultural Programming, and has performed on various talk show programs and television platforms. This year, they presented a 2023/2024 season of work that encompassed pieces spanning 1971 to 2023.

Vivaldi’s music has the ability to pull on the heartstrings of any audience, and it did just that for Pilobolus’s touching On the Nature of Things (2014). The piece began with a strong male figure walking toward a two-foot wide column, carrying another limp dancer on his back. He placed the dancer on the platform in the center of the stage and began to manipulate his movement, throwing his head back and forth with captivating force. After losing interest, he then carried a woman on stage and placed her on the platform. He proceeded to enact a dance of control with the couple. 

Danced by Nathaniel Buchsbaum, Quincy Ellis, and Merlon Feliz, On the Nature of Things evolved from a mysterious series of tasks to a clear depiction of power versus the powerless. Feliz and Buchsbaum spiraled around each other, held each other, and shifted against one another as Ellis peeled them apart with cunning glee — often starting from the head. Presenting as a God-like figure, Ellis demonstrated immense strength, both physically and artistically, as he pushed against and held the others down. The dancers cantilevered, lifted, and thrust toward each other with ease and precision, exhibiting pure brawn as they took weight in precarious places without wavering — forearms, ankles, neck.

As the highlight of the evening, On the Nature of Things took a subdued and melancholy look at desire in a perfectly and intentionally antiquated format. By placing the subjects on the column platform, they become pristine Renaissance sculptures, and the viewer watches with awe as the art attempts to abscond its perceived maker. They cannot succeed, and we witness, heartbroken, as two movers toil in desperately toward each other while the third continues to thwart their attempts — despite sometimes displaying his own humanity in glimpses of jealousy, sadness, or longing. This is a classic story of struggle told repeatedly over centuries, and one that is still absorbed deeply by contemporary audiences today. The work’s title, On the Nature of Things, while reminiscent of musician Max Richter’s song title On the Nature of Daylight, comes from Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius’s first-century BC epic didactic poem De Rerum Natura. With the goal of explaining Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience, the poem addresses the universal topic of the human desire to pursue pleasure and avoid pain at all costs. At the end of the dance, the ‘maker’ has the final say and appears to slay his creations.

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Another standout piece of the evening was Walklydon (1971), a humorous Pilobolus classic choreographed by Robby Barnett, Lee Harris, Moses Pendleton, and Jonathan Wolken. Immediately upon viewing the piece, it can be joyously dated to the ‘70s in its postmodern tendencies. The dancers wear bright yellow full-body spandex unitards that cover their arms and legs, paired with shiny colorful boxing shorts. The dance is decidedly funny without exuding corniness — something not easy to do. It is self-aware, and the performers are clearly in on the joke. They pull each other by the ear, offer fake hand-shakes and pull their hands away, trade theatre slaps, chest-bump, leap, scream, grimace, and bite each other’s fingers while running away. What sounds like it should be but a barrage of strange gestures is a brilliant execution of slapstick comedy that holds up through the decades. This is due, in part, to the lack of musical soundscape, created instead by the sounds of the performers, and witty facial acting from the dancers. It is their enthusiasm and embodiment that continue to breathe life into this piece, and their strength that makes every lift, throw, tackle, and balance look easy, comical, and fun.

Also throughout the evening were Awaken Heart (2023), a piece about feeling at home; The Ballad (2022), a narrative collaboration with Native American storyteller Darlene Kascak; Behind the Shadows (2009), a delightful shadow dance encompassing the lights and screen to form surreal moving images; and Sweet Purgatory (1991), made by the original Pilobolus creators in dedication to “the resistance of fascists everywhere”, according to Matt Kent. The company’s re:CREATION tour is set to continue throughout the Winter with over ten dates spanning the country.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.

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