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Pilobolus Goes Up, Down And All Around

Claire Spera |
October 17, 2009 | 2:24 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Experience childlike wonder again- go see Pilobolus.  
(Photo courtesy Pilobolus Dance Theater.)
There are few dance companies like Pilobolus Dance Theater. Since 1971, when three Dartmouth College undergraduates (Robby Barnett, Michael Tracy and Jonathan Wolken) founded Pilobolus, the company's athletic dancers have become recognized worldwide not only as innovative, high-energy movers, but also as contortionists.  Able to mold their bodies collectively into practically any design, Pilobolus' dancers have appeared in television commercials, at the Academy Awards, and during three Olympic ceremonies.  Among numerous things, they've morphed their bodies to take the shape of a Hyundai automobile. As perfect as the images they create may look, Wolken is quick to point out the dancers' humanity: "These are real people doing real things, sweating -- and that's noble. We work with people who are inventive with their physicality, and who can work collaboratively."
Pilobolus' dancers are given more responsibility than usual when it comes to the creation of new choreographies. "The dancers have such a hand in shaping Pilobolus works," explains dancer Jun Kuribayashi, who joined the company in 2004 and helped create two of the four pieces coming to L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre this weekend, including the newest, Wolken's "Redline" (2009).  Echoing Kuribayashi's description of the dancer's role, fellow third year company member Christopher Whitney says, "Pilobolus is this very collaborative company. The dancers work with the choreographer and he shapes the piece, but the movement comes from our own bodies."
And move they certainly do. In "Redline," set to the driving electronic/hip-hop music of New York-based Battles, French Autechre and English DJ Champion (Wolken: "I listen widely -- my hungry ears always want more"), six dancers are pushed to their absolute limits. Explains Kuribayashi, "Working with Jonathan (Wolken) is a very different thing from anything I've experienced. He's very particular, but he's also the type of guy who'll sit there and pull things out of you that you didn't know were there. He pushes you to go beyond what you think is your limit. He's a genius." He adds that "Redline" is "such a workout. You have to physically do these crazy, crazy things, and yet not show how physically exhausted you are. After the curtain goes down, I sit there for a good 30 seconds, just trying to catch my breath...(dancing the piece is) kind of like asking a sprinter to wave and smile like a beauty queen while running." 
Pilobolus choreography invokes an athletic vocabulary that requires its dancers to not only be well versed in traditional dance forms, but also have experience in martial arts and acrobatics. Of his background, Kuribayashi notes, "My parents put me in sports when I was a kid to keep my rowdiness in check, but all it did was feed my stamina. Then I started doing martial arts, and that's where I learned discipline." From there, he took up capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that allowed him segue into breakdance. "One of the reasons Pilobolus has been so successful for so long is because the dancers bring their individual style(s)," Kuribayashi comments. 
Whitney, while working towards his dance degree at Ohio University, got a grant to study abroad in China where he trained from 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day in kung fu. In 1997's "Gnomen," Kuribayshi and Whitney will perform with two other dancers in a male quartet that emphasizes acrobatic partner work. Says Whitney, "Partnering for me is probably my favorite kind of dance work. You have to have this deep trust in the other dancers. We don't really think of ("Gnomen") as having 'steps,' per se. It's so much more about relationships than any other work I've done."
In addition to the newer works, Pilobolus will perform one of the company's classics, 1980's "Day Two," about the second day of the creation of the world. Wolken believes the company should "remember from whence it came," and that performing new as well as old works fulfills a "happy marriage of two needs." Of the piece's timeless quality, Whitney says, "It doesn't feel dated. None of the movement is passé. It really has stood the test of time. What it's about is timeless -- it's tribal, it's animalistic and it's about human nature."
Since its inception, the troupe has defined an aesthetic for getting to the root of human nature. Now, almost 40 years later, Wolken says the journey is nowhere near the end. "There was no particular, solid image of what Pilobolus would be," explains Wolken. "We started as three men -- anything and everything could happen. We did what we were motivated to do...We still have a fascination with the journey. We're still paddling." 
Pilobolus Dance Theater
October 23 and 24- 7:30 PM/October 25- 2:00 PM
Ahmanson Theatre
135 N. Grand
Los Angeles, CA  90012
(213) 972-7211
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