A review: Once again, Pilobolus amazes at American Dance Festival

Jun. 30, 2014 @ 08:04 AM

In their 37th American Dance Festival appearance – every season since the festival moved to Durham in 1978 – Pilobolus once again amazes with two world premiers and older works.

The Friday program at Durham Performing Arts Center kicks off with the world premiere of “On the Nature of Things,” performed by Shawn Fitzgerald, Eriko Jimbo and Mike Tyus.  This work showcases this troupe’s penchant to take on a difficult task and make it look easy.

This time, they choose to perform most of the dance on a small platform on which all three sometimes intertwine and use each other as counterweights as they extend their bodies over the edges. Dancers, wearing only briefs, their bodies lean and muscular, resemble sculptures. Their performance is made even more impressive because they perform in slow motion, which requires great strength, control and balance. There’s a mesmerizing flow. The effect is beautiful.

The dance begins as Tyus enters with a limp Fitzgerald draped over one shoulder and puts Fitzgerald on his side on the platform. Tyus then proceeds to manipulate Fitzgerald. At one point, Fitzgerald stands on his hands low to the platform, his feet lifted and straight behind him, as Tyus holds Fitzgerald’s feet and appears to slowly turn him in a circle. It’s Fitzgerald who does most of the work.

When Tyus brings Jimbo to the platform, the two men vie for her attention. Then, she’s off, sprawled face down on the floor and remains there for the rest of this work. Why? It’s much more interesting to see her in action.

The troupe’s dramatic flair and quirky sense of humor comes into play in the second world premiere, “The Inconsistent Pedaler.”  The work, which communicates both joy and sadness, is also influenced by the troupe’s collaboration with Israeli writer Etgar Keret and his wife Shira Geffen, who works in theater as a playwright, director and actress. She also writes children’s books.

Together, they create an imaginative, multi-layered work that engages.

The storyline focuses on a man’s 99th birthday party. He slumps over in a chair and he’s so unsteady that partygoers take his chair and follow him around so that whenever he decides to sit back down, he’ll have a place to land.

Everyone wears party hats – even the woman who pedals the stationary bicycle; she wears her hat on top of her helmet. She’s providing the pedal power to run a radio that blares upbeat music. When she stops pedaling, the music stops.

Enter a mysterious stranger pedaling a child’s bike, who comes to the rescue. He hops on the stationary bike, pedals and the music resumes. His appearance also seems to magically transform the old man, who walks with renewed vigor as though he’s a young again. He even hops onto the stationary bike, balances on his stomach on the seat and uses his hands to move the pedals. 

In this invigorated party atmosphere, partygoers, wearing their hats like beaks over their noses, create a spectacle as they move together in a circle, their bodies the hub, their extended arms, the spokes of the wheel. They clasp small, yellow ducks in the hand of the one arm they extend.

After the stranger leaves, the old man slumps backwards in his chair and partygoers cover him with the cloth on which “Happy Birthday” is painted. When they whisk it off, the man has disappeared – or has he?  A yellow balloon rises, and at the end of its string, a small object – the old man’s spirit perhaps?

The program also features the 2004 “Megawatt;” the 2011 “Korokoro” and the 2012 “Skyscrapers,” which gets even better with each viewing. This short, fast-paced work features tango duets that require multiple costume changes. At the post-performance discussion, a Pilobolus dancer said there was more action backstage then onstage.

Also, during the post-performance discussion, as Nile Russell speaks of how troupe members are so keyed into each other, some of the guys spontaneously demonstrate by mimicking Russell’s hand gestures as he talks. 

Now, that’s Pilobolus.