PopeJoy Hall sits on the southern edge of the campus of the University of New Mexico and is the University’s 1985-seat performing arts theater. It is, in fact, the largest multi-purpose venue in New Mexico. On this night, Popejoy hosts a single-performance show by the artistic dance troupe known as Pilobolus.
How can one describe Pilobolus? It is both childlike and mature; irreverent and educational; as quirky as Mummenschanz and as physical as Cirque du Soleil. A moving target, both literally and figuratively, Pilobolus seems to tailor its performances to the audience and also appears never to play the same venue twice in one season. So to describe it here with any amount of specificity might not be possible, as the same show may not be performed in the same way at a different venue, days or weeks later. This may owe to the fact that Pilobolus was conceived in 1971, and so has had nearly five decades to diversify its portfolio into over 120 dance works and artistic pieces.
The show consists of a small group of young, athletic performers who interact physically in ways that play with the contours and the emotive range of the human body. Using lighting, shadows and muted colors, individuals meld together into nonhuman creatures, and then burst apart into new forms, some recognizable and others simple blurs of movement. They use the mute symbolism of coordinated physical interaction to paint pictures and to tell stories. Add to that the cerebral stimulation of quirky lessons in anatomy and biology, best demonstrated by the first two pieces.
EYE OPENING: This piece sets the stage for the level of exuberance and fun in store for the viewer. The blatant punnery of the title itself (the opening number — an anatomy lesson about the human eyeball), the use of broad symbolism, complex camera movement (yes, there’s a camera involved in this one!), and pinpoint precision choreography make Eye Opening a perfect introduction to the rest of the show — while at the same time standing apart from the other pieces in so many ways, both technically and artistically.
Confused? Think “variety show”. Every act is unique and different from the ones that come before or that follow. Yet in the case of Pilobolus, the cohesion of the whole is unmistakable. It’s like watching The Muppet Show. No matter what happens, it’s still the Muppets and makes total sense. The same applies to Pilobolus.
PILOBOLUS IS A FUNGUS: A mix of live action and a pre-recorded video program, Pilobolus Is A Fungus uses the talents of the dancers to create the actual imagery, alongside some fascinating (and relevant) macro photography. The piece gives a nod to the namesake of the group, the Pilobolus crystallinus, a phototropic (light loving) fungus whose spores are thrown off with great velocity and adhere to wherever they land. The name is appropo. Experience an evening of Pilobolus, and you cannot help but feel that some small part of the experience leaves the auditorium with you.
Several of the pieces that follow seem purely physical exercises of living art. GNOMEN and BRANCHES are two examples. However, each is built upon a unique core theme and then is expanded upon to encompass both the artistic and the symbolic. For example, Gnomen is a piece dedicated to the memory of Jim Blanc, a colleague and fellow dancer who died at the age of 36 as a result of complications from AIDS. Gnomen explores the complexity of intimate relationships that exist among men. Devoid of spoken words, Pilobolus tells its stories through the pure medium of physical expression.
A large, ever-present silk screen remains an uncredited member of Pilobolus. Aided by swift, set-dressing dancers, the screen skips and twirls into position, and on cue, as a movie screen, a comic strip panel and speech bubble aid, a shadow performance stage, and as a transition curtain, as performers go scurrying about behind it in a mad tango of preparation for the next scene.
Like me, you may never have heard of Pilobolus. Or more accurately, you might never have known their name. Pilobolus (the dance company) has been performing for 47 years, reaching over 300,000 people internationally each year. They actually started shadow dance theater so many years ago. In the early 70’s they appeared regularly on Sesame Street. They have performed on Broadway, at the Oscars, and at the Olympic games. So it’s likely that you’ve enjoyed a Pilobolus performance at some time in the past, and not realized it.
The Fall of 2020 will bring some special performances in celebration of Pilobolus’ 50th year of existence. Because of the diversity of dance numbers the company has developed, it’s worth catching a performance at every opportunity you get. Each is sure to be different and unique. The Pilobolus calendar lists all scheduled future shows. One is sure to pop up near you.