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Pilobolus Provides a Trove of Delights

Written by Mariko Nagashima

Pilobolus in Automaton 
Photo by Grant Halverson
Pilobolus blazed through Edmonds for a one-night-only performance this Saturday, February 16, 2013, with their usual visual tomfoolery and mind-boggling strength. Known for their shape-shifting contortions and sometimes logic-defying physicality, the subject matter of their pieces is rarely profound, but such transparency does little to diminish the level of entertainment they create.
Opening the evening was the newest work on the bill, Automaton, in which the dancers began as mechanized robots jerkily roaming the stage. Their rather unwieldy props, three large rectangular mirrors, were only used effectively once, when three dancers each stopped and looked into their reflections, while the mirrors were held at an angle baring down on them. Like Narcissus before them they became completely transfixed with their reflection; they truly “saw” themselves for the first time, which initiated their shift from automatons to people. With a haunting fluidity, they awakened to their human-ness in a series of duets where the partners intertwined their bodies in arcing waves. The mirrors were effective here because they were held to face the audience; viewers watched the dancers’ reactions through their reflection, and each played up their transformation with poignancy. In the end, however, each dancer returned to being just a cog in a machine as they folded over each other like interlocking gears.
In the 1997 work, Gnomen, four male dancers seemed to perform an ancient ritual where each in turn assumed a different power. One flew majestically through the air in arcing waves, cleverly buoyed by the other three. Another displayed miraculous strength, sustaining a headstand while his arms were pulled from his sides making his body bob upward, and a third became a curious little creature with ceaseless scurrying steps, even while inverted. The fourth was perhaps the most stunning: Jun Kuribayashi perched perpendicularly on the other dancers, cantilevering himself into seemingly impossible balances. The meditative score by Paul Sullivan contributed to the ritualistic feeling, and lent an even greater sense of grandeur to their super-human feats. 
Perhaps the most entertaining piece on the program, All Is Not Lost, was created to an infectious Ok Go song of the same title. The elaborate set up involved a live feed camera on the floor aimed upward at the underside of a clear elevated platform and projected onto a screen. Clad in icy mint unitards, the dancers stood on, leapt over, slid across, and jumped onto the platform, but when viewed from below and flipped to appear vertically on the screen, these simplistic movements became pure magic. Standing in a circle and opening their arms they created flowering kaleidoscopic patterns; sliding on their bellies they were suddenly swimming upstream; and a simple roll looked like they were being pulled upward by an invisible vacuum or tumbling down the rabbit hole. Though definitely gimmicky, it was still clever and fun; the dancers seemed to think so too as they couldn’t help but giggle and grin throughout.
All Is Not Lost 
Photo courtesy of Pilobolus
Also an older work, Symbiosis(2001) featured the sparsely clad Erika Jimbo and Matt Del Roasario performing gymnastic partnering with mercurial grace. Biological imagery and a fascination with diverse life-forms is seen throughout Pilobolus’ repertoire (their name also refers to a common fungus) and these themes were particularly strong in Symbiosis. The couple seemed to become unfurling leaves, windblown tumbleweed, and waving sea anemones as they somersaulted and balanced on each other with equal parts strength and suppleness. A hypnotic work, its initial novelty wore thin as it dragged on too long, and a costume malfunction proved distracting.
The dynamic Megawatt(2004) closed the program with an aggressive punch. To music by Primus, Radiohead, and Squarepusher, the troupe dive-rolled and somersaulted recklessly, jittered as if being electrocuted, and generally rocked out. Wearing raggedy roller derby-esque garb, they made a motley crew and, as if the rest of the show hadn’t already, confirmed their impressive gymnastic abilities and Energizer bunny-like stamina. The piece felt too abrasive as a finale, but was redeemed by the fact that the dancers were having a blast; their enjoyment was contagious.
Though Pilobolus only performed for one night, the impact was considerable. Their particularly honed style that emphasizes the malleability of the human form creates a true sense of wonder and reminds viewers just how magical movement can be. Edmonds Center for the Arts did well programming a guaranteed crowd-pleaser and this will hopefully whet the area’s appetite for more dance to come, and maybe for more than one night next time.