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Pilobolus - More Resources

Pilobolus: Theater of the Very Far Out

By Joseph Mills

PILOBOLUS is named after a phototropic fungus that co-founder Jonathan Wolken learned about in his father’s biology lab, an organism that has provided a working metaphor for the company and its growth. Pilobolus, the fungus, has the amazing ability to shoot its spores at high velocity over a long distance, thereby covering a large territory in a relatively short time. So too, Pilobolus, the dance phenomenon, grew rapidly from its inception and spread across the globe in a matter of just a few years. Pilobolus was quickly acclaimed for its unusual mix of physicality and invention. Soon after its inception, the group evolved into a completely self-sufficient organization, with its members choreographing, dancing, managing, and publicizing their own work. 

Today Pilobolus is a major American dance company with a powerful influence in the international dance scene. Though it has grown from its tiny spores into an enormous infestation, Pilobolus remains strongly connected to its early roots. The company remains deeply committed to collaboration in its artistic as well as organizational endeavors. The collaborative relationship between the directors and dancers contributes to one of the most popular and diverse repertories in the field. Over forty years of dance-making stand as a testament to the company’s position as an artistic collective of remarkable fruitfulness and longevity. Pilobolus lives and works in Washington, Connecticut, a small town in the state’s rural northwest, and is committed to existing outside of the traditional hallowed dance center, New York City.

The company has grown and expanded to become a global presence, evolving and refining its unusual collaborative methods to produce a choreographic vision of power and integrity. And while it has become a stable and influential force in the world of dance, Pilobolus remains as protean and surprising as ever.

Origins and Evolution

The origin of the Pilobolus phenomenon was quite unorthodox. None of the original four members were dancers.  They were self-professed “jocks” from Dartmouth College who registered for a modern dance class with a new professor, Alison Chase. She taught introductory level modern dance to classes for all male students with no background in dance. She realized that teaching traditional modern dance vocabulary and technique would be not only frustrating for these “jocks,” but also probably boring. So she began teaching these men by working with alignment, and experimenting with improvisational skills and dance-making assignments. They were encouraged to develop their own movement vocabularies that were often based on sports activities with which they were familiar. The class was more about dance composition than traditional modern dance technique. The students had no model to limit them: they were in many ways blank canvases for dance.

All of the men were interested in theater, arts, and sports, which were common threads for them. Pilobolus was actually the name for the first dance (a trio) that was choreographed as an assignment in Alison’s class. This piece was presented in a showing in the student theater in the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth. Later that year Murray Louis (a renowned choreographer/dancer from New York) invited Chase to bring some of her students’ best works to a showing he was having with Nancy Meehan, and Pilobolus was one of the pieces that went. Upon seeing it, Louis invited the men to present their dances in a performance at his New York studio/theater, The Space, provided they could put together a whole evening of work. During the following months Steve Johnson, one of the original three, dropped out to pursue his career in medicine (he is now a neurosurgeon), and Lee Harris took his place.

Following graduation from Dartmouth, the men (Jonathan Wolken, Moses Pendleton, Robby Barnett, and Harris) continued to develop their ideas and practice, creating Walklyndon in 1971, and presenting their first program of works in New York City, thanks to Murray Louis’s invitation. Present at this performance, New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote that they possessed: “amazing physical fearlessness, humor, inventiveness, and unselfconsciousness” (Kisselgoff 1971, Dec. 31). The next several months were spent choreographing and putting together a program that was performed throughout the northeast at colleges, universities, and community theaters. The group’s founders initially managed and promoted the company themselves.

The men were now fully committed to being dancers and forming a company, but it was equally important to them that it be no ordinary dance company. In keeping with the times, they would push the boundaries and redefine the concept of theatrical dance. They would continue to create their own dance vocabulary and develop their own training methods. 

The group continued creating and performing, and began accruing critical acclaim and a reputation, especially within the college circuit. The next phase in the company’s growth and development was the addition of two women. In the winter of 1973, Martha Clarke moved up to Hanover to work with Chase; there they began to create some of their own choreography. Clarke and Barnett started working on a duet, Terra Cotta, and the six of them began to “hang out” together. Gradually, they began talking about incorporating the women’s work into the show, and eventually they agreed (Mr. Harris, reluctantly). They worked on a group piece, Ciona, which was premiered at the Johnson State College in the early summer, along with the men’s work and some of the women’s dances. The newly integrated group received mixed reviews. Some critics saw the women’s more traditional, theatrical work as out of place with the innovative athletic work of the men, while others felt that the new softer, feminine energy contrasted well with the previously masculine palette. The women continued their involvement, and the company performed Ciona, their first sextet, in the emerging choreographers showcase in new London, Connecticut, as part of the American Dance Festival.

 

In 1974, Michael Tracy joined the group, replacing Lee Harris. This was a crucial period in the company’s growth. The works created in this phase of the company’s development, after the inclusion of the women, were:  Monkshood’s Farewell (1974), Ciona (second version) (1974), Tryptic (1974), Untitled (1975), and Alraune (1975). With the combination of masculine and feminine elements, the group began to attract even more attention. Monkshood’s Farewell and Untitled became signature pieces that changed the perception of modern dance. The intense physicality of their movement and the unusual lifts performed in a theatrical setting without recognizable dance steps caused audiences to re-examine their definition of dance. Though they were not accepted members of the avant-garde postmodern dance community, their work also questioned the basic precepts of theatrical dance and opened new possibilities to choreographers in a variety of dance genre.

In a March, 1974 Dance Magazine review, Ellen Stodolsky said of the newly integrated company that: “The men bring form and strength to the choreographic process, the women have injected lightness and humanity in action” (Stodolsky 1974). Most reviews reflect this new sensitivity and potential as being a revolutionary development for the company. The sense was that the women would bring a more varied movement vocabulary to the company.

Another consequence of the women’s arrival was the development of new artistic and personal partnerships, which influenced the group’s choreography and also led to offshoot companies and personnel shifts. Barnett and Clarke formed Crowsnest at the American Dance Festival, while Pendleton and Chase began performing duets as MOMIX. Tracy and Wolken also became a creative partnership, collaborating in 1980 on The Empty Suitor, a commission for the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid. Acknowledging that the collaborative process had been immensely productive, but still needing to express her singular voice, Martha Clark left Pilobolus in 1979 to pursue a separate career. After leaving Pilobolus, Clarke’s recognition in theater increased, and she was awarded a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 1987. Her work continues to be marked by the use of movement and theater to create evocative and often surreal imagery.

The Pilobolus collective of six performers was now dividing, and at the same time recombining in new combinations that continued to feed back into the core. The company, known for its dances utilizing bodies to create biomorphic shapes like single celled animals, likens its organizational structure to that of an amoeba; as Wolken said in an interview:

It’s very amoebic. You know the creature itself will send a shoot out and then pull itself up so the bulk of the creature is there and then send out another shoot in another direction. It’s that kind of process.  We go where our thoughts go. (Fanger 1974, p. 40)

The company was aware of the shift in its collaborative choreography. Its shape was constantly changing, but its essence, its identity, remained unmistakably Pilobolus.

The 1980s saw many changes in the company, as former members cut back on their performing or stopped dancing all together. During this transitional period, most of the directors began to direct individual collaborations with new replacement dancers, as opposed to the director/dancer relationships that they previously had with each other. New dancers were hired and trained as replacements for each of the individuals. The exception to this, Michael Tracy, continued performing and directing through 1987.

The directors would take turns choreographing for the company, working singularly or in collaboration with one other member when they had choreographic ideas to pursue. As the directors began to assert their individual creative interests, choreographic elements that were previously integrated into the company’s overall style were expressed as individual decisions. During this period, pieces were created by any number of people, with directors sometimes allying themselves on certain endeavors (for instance, Barnett and Chase collaborated on a series of works in the 1980s, including Return to Maria La Baja and The Golden Bowl), and directing independently on other projects.

Unabashed theatricality and narrative had become a strong vein of Pilobolus work by the mid to late 1980s. In a Dance Magazine review from 1985, Sally Sommers writes: “Judging from the new pieces, the company has left behind the abstract body-alphabets of earlier years for the theatrically charged dances with narrative ideas and characters” (Sommers 1985, p. 20). But the company never fully abandoned its signature acrobatic elements. The magical lifts and weight sharing movements were used to further the plot of the narrative, theatrical works, and enliven the vocabulary of more abstract, movement-oriented pieces. On the other hand, the newer dancers were indeed trained dancers and capable of more “dancerly” types of choreography while still capable of the humor and athleticism of the traditional Pilobolus works.

In 1990, due to financial strains and internal difficulties, the company was reconfigured. After an experiment with having a sole executive director, in 1993 the company re-confirmed its commitment to a collaborative model, with four artistic directors (Pendleton formally departed the company in 1990) working full-time for the company. Major responsibilities were divided among the directors: Wolken handled the booking and development, Chase managed The Pilobolus Institute, Barnett was the administrative liaison with the touring company, and Tracy was in charge of special projects and development of commercial work. The structure of the operations of the company continued to evolve as necessary changes asserted themselves. As a collective, there are no real business structures to use as examples in the artistic community: “It’s all been one big experiment” (Tracy 1997).

The Pilobolus Institute, a division designed to channel the educational activities of the directors through the company, also grew out of this restructuring in 1990. The institute was conceived as an educational program designed to heighten interest in dance and movement, and to bring Pilobolus to communities for a residence period of one to three weeks. The Pilobolus Institute has continued successfully, keeping the directors’ teaching, and choreography directly connected to the company.

Though 1990 was a very difficult year financially, because of reduced touring income, it was a productive year choreographically, including the creation of the signature work Particle Zoo. A quartet for four men, the piece is highly athletic and largely abstract, but with a narrative theme. 1991 marked the first collaboration between the four artistic directors since 1987, Sweet Purgatory.

In 2002, the company again restructured, bringing in Itamar Kubvoy as executive director. Alison Chase left the company due to artistic differences in 2005, and Jonathan Wolken died in 2010. Of the original 6 directors of Pilobolus, Barnett and Tracy are now left to carry on.  They continue to hold to the choreographic methodologies they pioneered and the still very successful company continues to evolve and change.

Collaborative Creative Process

One of the most striking aspects of Pilobolus’ work is its accessibility to a wide spectrum of audiences, and this accessibility can also be attributed to the collaborative choreographic process. The multiple sources of imagery inherent in a group produces a diversity of ideas with which to work, and when they find something to be fun, interesting or strange, other people do too. Such a process works not only in the creation of imagery, but also in editing the images after they have been created.

Multiple understandings of a topic give its investigation more depth. The multiple experiences that each contributor brings to the choreographic endeavor provide the basis for imagery that can have references in several directions at once. As a result, audiences are often presented with several levels of meaning, and can enter the work at any of a variety of levels. Not only does the work have more entry points, but once engaged, one finds content with more depth. The purposeful use of ambiguity leads us to imagery that is steeped in possibility. In trying to describe the Pilobolus aesthetic, Alison Chase said: “I would say that there is a sort of ambiguity – if an image can be read as two things, that would always appeal to our sensibilities” (1995).

Another asset involved with the collaborative choreographic process of Pilobolus is the perceived safety in risk-taking that is nurtured in the group process. In the group, individuals are not singularly responsible for the outcome of a specific endeavor. They are able to take chances, dare to make mistakes, be outlandish, even fail. With this risk-taking comes a great deal of freedom; no one person has the shoulder the blame for failure.  It is quite possible that the anonymity within the group participation was one of the central elements of their early process that allowed the men to create, without the fear of criticism, work that was so completely revolutionary.

The collaborative choreographic process also benefits the individual. Because of the multitude of ideas one has to deal with, the individual is forced to confront his or her own beliefs in ways that an individual choreographer would not have to do. This confrontation causes the individual to consider new ideas, clarify his or her own opinions, and to express them with within the creative process, thereby fostering creative growth. Talking about this sense-making within the group, Barnett says, “I believe for all of us it is a form of self analysis” (1995). The safety of anonymity allows for Pilobolians to be fully expressive of the many sides of the self.

Contentious as things admittedly can get in collaboration, the directors agree that the mutual respect for the talents and abilities of their colleagues is at the heart of their success in collaboration. The genuine friendships which established the ground for such fertile collaborations, are respected as ancestral beginnings.

The collaborative efforts of the original group of six were almost magical. The melding of ideas, whether conscious or unconscious, made the whole much greater than the sum of its parts. The group exuded a charisma: a sort of super human energy that was manifested in their performances. Pendleton notes the importance of the fusion of the group’s ideas and imagery, and describes the transformative power of their choreographic process as becoming:

…an energy fungus that has more than human energy. That was our goal, [to be] like living fire, almost like a chemical thing when we’re able to mix these ideas together, and get so inflamed…that we would metamorphose… (Pendleton 1995).


NOTE: In addition to the sources cited below, this essay draws on the following interviews by the author:

Barnett, Robby. Telephone Interview, February 27, 1995.

Barnett, Robby. Telephone Interview, November 23, 1997.

Chase, Alison. Telephone Interview, February, 27, 1995.

Pendleton, Moses. Telephone Interview, March 2, 1995.

Tracy, Michael. Telephone Interview, March 1, 1995.

Wolken, Jonathan. Telephone Interview, February 24, 1995.


Joseph Mills is a performer, choreographer, teacher, and personal trainer.  He has performed with Mid America Dance Company-MADCO (now Modern American Dance Company), MOMIX, The Erick Hawkins Dance Company, and as a guest artist with Hartel Dance Company, Lisa Giobbi's Moving Pictures Dance Theater, Maida Withers' Dance Construction Company, Heidi Latsky Dance, and many others. In 1998 Mills completed his Ed.D. in Dance from Temple University with his doctoral dissertation: The Fungus Among Us: Pilobolus Dance Theater in Multiple Perspectives. Mills is also a Certified Personal Trainer, a Movement Analyst and interested in somatic studies and holistic approaches to understanding the body. He has been an Assistant Professor of Dance at The George Washington University (1995-2000), an Associate Professor of Dance and Director of the Dance Program at Northwestern University (2000-2008), and an Assistant Professor of Dance at Queens College-CUNY in New York (2008-2013). In 2001 he formed MILLS/works, an umbrella for the performance of dance projects by or for him, and he recently launched a Personal training/movement coaching business, Mindful Body/Movement and Fitness. 

Books and Articles 

Anderson, Jack, "Pilobolus, The Space," Dance Magazine, (January 1973): 79-80.

------. "Pilobolus at American Dance Festival."New York Times. 31 July 1978.

------. "Dance: Some Old Tricks Revived by Pilobolus." New York Times. 29 December 1981.

------. "The Dance: Pilobolus Offers Several Acrobatic Works." New York Times. 31 January 1987.

------. "The Dance: Pilobolus, in New and Past Works." New York Times. 10 February 1987.

------. "Pilobolus Moving To Shock."New York Times. 16 December 1988.

------. "A Mother And Son Grow Close Yet Apart."New York Times. 28 December 1990.

------. “A 21-Year-Old Group That's Still Devoted To Fighting Gravity.” New York Times. 22 July 1992.

Armstrong, Joannna N. The Theory of Play: A Study of Its History and Philosophy Based on Texts by Schiller, Proebel, Compayre and Piaget. (Doctoral Dissertation from University of Houston), 1959.

Barnes, Clive. "Untitled Opens Fare at Brooklyn Academy." New York Times. 6 March 1976.

------. “Two Young Troupes Off and Running.” New York Times. 14 March 1976.

------. “Dance: Unique Pilobolus Troupe.” New York Times. 25 July 1977.

------. “Dance: 3 Premiers by Pilobolus.” New York Times. 29 August 1977.

------.  “Pilobolus Turns Cartwheels With Dance Esthetics." New York Times.

-------- 11 September 1977.

Dunning, Jennifer. "Pilobolus at the McCarter." New York Times. 4 May 1975.

------. "Is Success Changing Pilobolus?"New York Times. 20 December 1981.

------. "Pilobolus: `Elegy for the Moment." New York Times. 2 November 1982.

------. "Dance: Violent New Pilobolus Work."  New York Times. 14 July 1984.

------. "The Dance: Pilobolus Performs at Jacob's Pillow." New York Times. 20 August 1985.

------. "Dance: From Pilobolus, The Old and the New." New York Times. 28 January 1987.

------. "Pilobolus's Weirdness And Wit." New York Times. 20 July 1988.

------. "Pilobolus in New Type of Extravaganza." New York Times. 17 December 1988.

------. "Pilobolus Recalls Its Beginnings."New York Times. 13 December 1990.

------. "Making Fun of Sense and Enjoying Nonsense."New York Times. 20 December 1990.

------. "Pilobolus 1971 to 1992: Evolution in Progress." New York Times. 8 August 1992.

Fanger, Iris M. "Pilobolus."Dance Magazine, (July 1974): 38-42.

Gilford, Barbara. "Putting Inventiveness Into Motion." New York Times. 7 July 1991.

Greskovic, Robert. "Pilobolus at 21: Still a Combative Collaborative." New York Times. 19 July 1992.

Harris, William. "Pilobolus, Unruly as Ever, Pulls Together Anew." New York Times. 11 December 1988.

Hemple, Charles J. M.D. Shiller's Complete Works. Philadelphia, PA: King and Baird, 1860.

Huizinga, J. Homo Ludens. New York, NY: Roy Publishers, 1950.

Johnson, Robert. "Pilobolus Evolves to Beat the Recession." Dance Magazine, (February 1992): 13-14.

Johnson, Robert. "Pilobolus Back to Back." The New Dance Review, (Fall 1993): 18. 

Jowitt, Deborah. “In Dance, Male Lib Means Less Masculinity.” New York Times. 25 August 1974.

Kisselgoff, Anna. "Dance: New Group From Dartmouth."New York Times. 31 December 1971.

------. "Dance: A Blending of Humor and Guts." New York Times. 29 July 1973.

------. "Pilobolus Dancing Its Way to Togetherness."New York Times. 5 March 1976

------. "Not Ballet,  Not Acrobatics, But Pilobolus!''' NewYork--Times. 20 November 1977.

------. "Dance: Pilobolus Climbs High." New York Times. 25 November 1977.

------. "Dance: Pilobolus 6 Show More Topsy-Turvy Skill." New York Times. 28 November 1977.         

------. "Dance: Pilobolus Leaps for Laughs."New York Times. 14 March 1980.

------. "Dance: Pilobolus Premier of `Bonsai.' New York Times. 23 July 1981.

------. "Dance: Pilobolus Premier of `Bonsai.' New York Times. 21 December 1981.

------. "Dance: Pilobolus Evening with a Share of Surprises." New York Times. 24 December 1981.

------. "When Confession Is All." New York Times. 3 October 1982.

------. "Grotesque Imagery Has Come to Dance." New York Times. 15 April 1984.

------. "Dance: Pilobolus Opens at the Joyce." New York Times. 6 February 1985.

------. "The Dance: Pilobolus Presents Two New York Premiers."New York Times. 8 February 1985.

-----. "Dance: Three Pilobolus Premiers." New York Times. 15 February 1985.

-----. "Dance: Pilobolus Offers `Carmina Burana, Side II." New York Times. 30 January 1987.

------. "James's `Golden Bowl' According to Pilobolus." New York Times. 26 December 1988.

------. "More Guests Tune in to Pilobolus's Esthetic."New York Times. 14 December 1990.

------. "Confrontation Wins in a Pilobolus Premiere."New York Times.

_____ 17 December 1990.

------. "A Procession of Pilobolus Successes."New York Times. 23 July 1992.

------. "Pilobolus." New York Times. 27 July 1992.

Kostelanetz, Richard. Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes. Pennington, NJ: a capella books, Chicago Review Press, Inc., 1993.

Laine, Barry. "Pilobolus Expands Its Dramatic Forms."New York Times. Feb. 3, 1985.

Lobenthal, Joel. "Pilobolus Back in New York After Three-Year Wait." Dance Magazine, (February 1985): 4.

Matson, Tim. Pilobolus. New York, NY: Random House Inc., 1978.

McDonagh, Don. "Pilobolus Troupe Uses Controlled Power."New York Times. 26 January 1974.

------. "Dance Fans Reap a Bonus in Park."New York Times. 30 September 1974.

O'Connor, John J. "TV: Pilobolus Style Is Unusual Dance." New York Times. 4 May 1977.

Onoda, Karen. "Pilobolus, Joyce Theater." Dance Magazine, (September 1987): 23-2.

Perron, Wendy. "Pilobolus Dance Theater, The Space." Dance Magazine, (July 1973): 71-72

Robertson,_Allen. "Reviews." Dance_Magazine, (Januany 1976): 93.

Smith, Amanda. "Sex and Other Gimmicks." Dance Magazine, (May 1976): 100, 103, 105.

Solomons, Gus Jr. "Pilobolus, Joyce Theater." Dance Magazine, (April 1989): 91-2.

Sommer, Sally R. "Calculated Whimsy: The Pilobolus Trap." Dance, Magazine, (June 1985): 20, 22.

Stodolsky, Ellen. "Reviews." Dance Magazine, (March 1974): 70.

Tobias, Anne. "Pilobolus Dance Theater, Joyce Theater."Dance Magazine, (November 1992): 97-8.

Tobias, Tobi. "Dance." New York Magazine, (February 1985): 68.

Vaughn, David. "Reviews." Dance Magazine, (February 1978): 32-3, 36-7.

Wakin, Daniel J. “Pilobolus Suffers Bitter Breach Over Rights to Choreography.” New York Times. 24 July 2006.

Whitaker, Leslie A. "Pilobolus: An Analysis of a Current Dance Company." Unpublished Master's Thesis, The American University, Washington D.C., 1980.

Zimmer, Elizabeth. "Reviews." Dance Magazine, (April 1982): 149-51.          

------. "Fungus Among Us." The Village Voice. 26 July 1996, 76.

Web Resources

Pilobolus website:

http://www.pilobolus.org/