The Pilobolus dance troupe rises at 50

In Pilobolus’ work “Up! Umbrella Project,” created in partnership with MIT, hundreds of people gather in an open field, each holding a lighted umbrella. Guided by instructors and working in groups, often alongside people they’ve never met, they click buttons to change the colors of their umbrella. A camera records the bird’s-eye view and projects the changing formations—a beating heart, a happy face, a waterfall—onto a giant screen in real time.

It’s a joyful and participatory creation that embodies the innovative and collaborative work the company has done – internally and with the public – for half a century.

“I don’t think we would have survived this long if we didn’t have the power of the group,” said Renée Jaworski, who co-directs the Vermont-based troupe with Matt Kent. “That’s how we work in the studio, that’s how we work in our office, that’s how we teach. When you’re a collective, rather than a one-person vision, you get diverse perspectives and a diverse approach to not only the movement you see on stage, but also how you interact with the world.


To mark its momentous anniversary this year, the company is presenting a production titled “Pilobolus: Big Five-Oh!” On stage at 8 p.m. Friday at The Egg, the program features five works from 1978 to 2021 – with choreography for each piece credited to at least eight people. Jaworski describes it as “a little roller coaster ride through the worlds that Pilobolus has created over the past 50 years”.

The seed for the company was planted in 1971, when Jonathan Wolken, Moses Pendleton and Steve Johnson (a fencer, cross-country skier and pole vaulter, respectively) met in a dance class taught by Alison Chase at Dartmouth College. They dubbed their class project Pilobolus – named after a sun-loving mushroom that can shoot spores with incredible speed and force – and made one of their first public appearances opening for Frank Zappa during a concert at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. . (Zappa asked them to join him on the road, but they turned him down because the mid-terms were approaching.) Pendleton, Wolken, and Chase became founding members of the company, along with Robby Barnett, Martha Clarke, and Michael Tracy.

Over the years, their unique movement aesthetic, with bodies intertwined in flowing, organic shapes, has become iconic, earning them high-profile gigs like the Oscars, Olympics, and MTV’s Video Music Awards. . As the co-founders passed the company and repertoire on to new generations, the “Pilobolus DNA,” as Kent calls it, began to spread an expanded vocabulary and new educational and outreach programs.

“Pilobolus: Big Five-Oh!”

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany

Tickets: $36

Information: 473-1845 or https://www.theegg.org/event/pilobolus

Also: A pre-show chat with artistic directors Renée Jaworski and Matt Kent begins at 7:15 p.m.


“The founders saw Pilobolus as a living entity that grows, changes, transforms and adapts,” Jaworski said. “Another reason we survived is that we don’t get stuck in a period. We love to play, we love to splash around, we get inspired by a lot of things. For example, their Hyundai commercial featuring silhouette dancers led to the development of the 2009 work “Shadowland”, incorporating shadow theater and animation. The new piece “Behind the Shadows”, one of the works in the “Big Five-Oh” program, draws on this process and goes further to reveal the method behind the magic.

The one-night performance also includes 2004’s “Megawatt,” danced on a giant carpet to music from Primus, Radiohead and Squarepusher. Redesigned for this show, the piece is dedicated to Wolken, its co-creator, who died in 2010.

“The Empty Suitor’s Solo” (1980), which changes each time it’s played, draws on the lore of Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan as its hero tries to balance himself on five long cylinders without touching the ground. Early works “Shizen” and “Day Two” exemplify the company’s signature partnership technique.

The “Big Five-Oh” tour will take Pilobolus across the country, after 18 months of performing closer to home. True to its nature, the company quickly rose to the challenge of the pandemic, with outdoor performances and workshops, treetop dancers, live music and “drive-by safaris,” with audiences watching from their vehicles. For the cast members, it was a fertile period of creativity and slowing down.

“We ate together, cooked together, played music in the evenings together. … It was, in a way, a wonderful journey back in time to a time when we weren’t all running around trying to run a business, but just making art because we were there together,” Kent said. “Now is not just a time to look ahead and see what we want to do differently, but also to reflect on what matters and remember who we are before deciding what comes next.”

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