By Emily Disher
A dance company that names itself after a fungus immediately inspires curiosity. After learning more about the unending nimble and wildly imaginative Pilobolus Dance Theater, that curiosity blossoms into full-on fascination. The modern performance company, founded on principles of collaborative creativity, produces a unique combination of acrobatic and athletic performance art that will force you rethink the limits of the human body. On April 17, Pilobolus will enliven the McAninch Arts Center in Glen Elllyn with its unique brand of dance.
Okay, it's true that Pilobolus shares its name with a fungus that grows on cow dung. What makes this tiny fungus remarkable, though, is the way it aims its spores at the sunlight, and can propel them up to ten feet away when ripe. Pilobolus Dance Theater co-founder Jonathan Wolken, whose father studied the fungus in the early 1970s, was inspired by the extraordinary ability of the organism to perform with such power and accuracy. Associate artistic director Renee Jaworski explains that Pilobolus (the fungus) displayed “properties that (the founding members) wanted to emulate as a company—strong, phototropic, always searching for the light.” As a result, beginning in 1971, “Pilobolus” became a name recognizable not just to mycologists, but to artists as well, when a group of Dartmouth College students—including Wolken—founded Pilobolus Dance Theater.
Pilobolus was instituted on collaboration, and it becomes clear quite quickly that the collaborative nature of Pilobolus not only permeates the structure of the company, but also the creation process and the finished product. When asked to explain how the experience of dancing with Pilobolus might be different from dancing with other major modern companies, Jaworski insists it is the dancer's vital contributions to the creative process that stands out. “The biggest thing is that our dancers are viewed as collaborators,” Jaworski explains. “When we get into the studio or out on the road, they are not just following orders. They are part of the conversation in a way that I don’t think happens everywhere.”
Pilobolus hires their dancers not just for their performance capabilities—dancing, acting, acrobatics—but also for their creative potential. Jaworski points out that Pilobolus dancers must have an innate interest in the world and in new ways of expressing themselves. They must have “genuine curiosity,” she says.
The Pilobolus International Collaborators Project, an innovative dance incubator program, began in 2007 and has enriched the way the dance company interacts with other creatives. The project brings together Pilobolus performers with other artists to create unique works. Notable collaborators have included author/illustrator Maurice Sendak, magicians Penn and Teller, Taiko player Leonard Eto, the MIT Distributed Robotics Laboratory, and Maus cartoonist Art Spiegelman.
Jaworski notes, “We collaborate with people who are from all different kinds of media, and who bring different (talents) to the table. It’s something that allows us to really explore (ideas) with different perspectives than we naturally bring (to the table).”
With so many expert artists assembling to collectively produce a work of art, conflicting ideas naturally arise, and, in fact, this helps to mold a finished product. Jaworski explains, “Conflict is something we’re not scared of. It’s part of the process. Conflict exists to make a better piece. It’s good to question things.”
When attending a Pilobolus performance, a quick glance at the evening’s program reveals the extensive partnerships that contribute to each work. Each piece in the playbill includes a lengthy list of the artists responsible for shaping it, as was the case when I had the pleasure of viewing Pilobolus at the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in April 2012. That unforgettable production of colorful acrobatics and astounding human configurations left me exhilarated and with a lasting impression. Every one of Pilobolus’ extraordinary programs stands as a testament to what’s truly possible when uniting so many creative backgrounds.
Even if you've never seen Pilobolus perform on stage, you may very well have observed their commercial arm, Pilobolus Creative Services (PCS), at the 2007 Academy Awards; or perhaps you've spotted them on Sesame Street, 60 Minutes, or Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
PCS, which provides movement design and production for business and advertising, has worked with such clients as Avon, American Express, IBM, Hyundai and Google. Pilobolus has managed to successfully win over both arts aficionados and commercial audiences through a remarkable slate of specialized branches including the Dance Theater, Creative Services, and the educational arm, Pilobolus Institute.
Suffice it to say, Pilobolus never rests. They are so active, in fact, that each branch employs its own distinct set of dance artists. “Because our schedule is so busy, we have Pilobolus Dance Theater—that is more of our repertoire company. Then we have Shadowland, (an evening-length, touring movement-theater piece that grew out of the 2007 Academy Awards presentation), which is a separate group of performers,” Jaworski explains. “We have adjunct dancers (pool of dancers) who do the Creative Services. For the education, we have dancers who no longer tour full time.”
Pilobolus Dance Theater, which will bring their singular creativity to the MAC this spring, performs anywhere from 90 to 130 shows touring each year. This season, they return to the newly renovated MAC at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, where they will light up the stage with a series of exciting collaborations (the specific works to be presented have yet to be announced).
The performance comes on the heels of a 14-month, $35 million renovation for the theater that included updates to all three of its performance spaces, and the addition of an art gallery and outdoor patio stage. Pilobolus will perform in the updated, state-of-the-art, 800-seat Performance Hall, which promises new seats, sapele wood accents, a stunning new, aubergine stage curtain; and a beautifully enhanced audio system.
“This is an exciting time for lovers of the performing arts,” says Diana Martinez, newly appointed executive director for the MAC. “The (theater) has always had a strong reputation, but with updated performance spaces and public areas, and a new art gallery, the MAC promises to be the destination to experience the visual and performing arts in the western suburbs.”
You can experience Pilobolus Dance Theatre in the beautiful new space during their one-night-only performance at 8 p.m. on April 17, 2014.
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts