Perhaps, like me, your regular exposure to dance consists of mocking "Dancing with the Stars" and admiring the enduring genius of Ernie...
Perhaps, like me, your regular exposure to dance consists of mocking “Dancing with the Stars” and admiring the enduring genius of Ernie Kovacs’ Nairobi Trio. (Axiom: A gorilla in a tutu will always be funny under any circumstances.) If so, you may only recognize Pilobolus from its bizarre-yet-astounding silhouette performance at last February’s Academy Awards.
The Washington Depot, Conn.-based dance company’s fluid shape-shifting is also featured in commercials for Hyundai and Volkswagen. But Jonathan Wolken, one of its founders and choreographers, doesn’t want the dancers to be eclipsed by their own shadows. I posed him some offbeat questions before the offbeat troupe’s three sold-out shows in at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall.
Q: Your group is named after a fungus that thrives in cow feces.
A: Well, that last detail is not necessarily the emphasis. The fact is, it grows like any good fungus in many, many places. And I don’t know why we want to stick with the scatological part of this. But I think it’s just the media — those nasty media people. No. We can simply say it grows around the barnyard.
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Q: How did you settle on that name?
A: The name was really suggested because of its sound. When I suggested the name so many years ago, it really had nothing to do with meaning at first. I mean, after all, the company was just starting. How could we in fact name ourselves accurately? But it turns out ironically that the metaphor is apt. It’s a wonderful thing — a living, growing, intelligent thing. It has good memory, has amazing energy, it grows, bends, twists toward the light, and when it’s good and ready it loses the entire top of its body, its entire head, and throws it some rather impressive distance.
Q: If there were a troupe called Rhizopus stolonifer (black bread mold), you could have the best rivalry of all time.
A: (Laughs.) Bring it on.
Q: Your company had been around 37 years before this year’s Oscar performance. What effect did that have?
A: Let’s face it, in a single set of couple-of-minute skits … more people saw what Pilobolus could do than had seen us onstage for the entire lifetime of the company. The effect of that was nothing at first, and then the phone slowly began to ring, and now it’s quite an impressive thing. We get invitations to do all kinds of things from all over the country and all over the world. And it may not be an exact correlation, an exact result really of the Academy Awards, but frankly I would say there’s a pretty close relation.
Q: If you were to perform at the next Oscars, what might you do from this year’s movies? I keep getting stuck on the naked sauna fight in “Eastern Promises.”
A: We would change it up entirely. We wouldn’t do that kind of thing. We would do something different. I mean let’s face it, the film business at least wants to be out on the cutting edge as any other business, so we would want to be there, too.
Q: I think it’s all about sequels, man.
A: (Laughs.) We could call it a sequel. We could definitely call it “Pilobolus: The Sequel.”
Q: Yeah, “Pilobolus 2: Electric Boogaloo.” Can you describe new dances you’ll be performing at your show in Seattle?
A: As far as I know, we’ll be doing quite a bit of our newest work. And so you’ll see a piece called “B’zyrk.” And if you say it right, in kind of a stiff Eastern European accent, so it’s like b’zeerk, and “Pseudopodia.” There’s a new piece that I’ve done, as yet untitled. I’m not going to tell you its title because I haven’t got it settled yet, but I’m working on it right now. But it’s a premiere — a world premiere! No, it’s not, just a sneak preview.
Q: Can you describe it at all?
A: I think it’s a frenetic and humorous look at the dark side of psychology.
Q: You get in some positions that make the naked wrestling scene in the “Borat” movie seem run-of-the-mill.
A: Well, some dances do that, but this dance doesn’t. On the other hand, though, let’s face it, the human body is a wonderful thing, and we all like to see it, in all kinds of guises, poses, positions and ways. It’s fascinating stuff. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I don’t find myself in the least bit bored.
Q: What goes through your mind when your face is in someone’s package for a pose?
A: Uh, not a lot. (Laughs.) What goes through your mind?
Q: What goes through my mind is: Anything for art.
A: Well, write that down.
Q: Explain your “unique weight-sharing approach” to dance. Is it in any way related to Kirstie Alley?
A: No, she has a weight problem of a very different kind, I think. I don’t think she shares any of her weight, either. I think it’s all hers. Weight-sharing for us is something that began a long time ago in Pilobolus. You can call it many things — body sculpture, whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. But it’s simply a way of building things that are larger than a single person, and you can do this in so many ways other than just lifting people straight up. You can actually add people together in creative ways and you’ll find — well, you’ll find what you find, and that’s the subject of choreography.
Q: The poses look as if they require enormous strength. My question is: How much can you bench press, dude?
A: Well I used to dance all the time. I used to bench press my friends. I’ll tell you another thing, which is a lot of it is balance. The better part of it is balance.
Q: What’s the audition process like? You! Get behind that screen and make a starfish! Now!
A: No, no, no, no, no. Shadow stuff still is not exactly what Pilobolus is. We do a lot of, as you will now see — all of our stuff really until just recently is in front of the curtain and is movement-based and theatrically based, and what you can do with a body in motion is really what Pilobolus is about. What can you invent? What can you do with what you’ve got? It’s really one of the basic questions in life. It’s certainly what we ask ourselves in the studio. What can we do that makes us want to sit there and watch it, because if we don’t want to watch it because we’re bored or uninterested, we can pretty easily infer that nobody else will.
Q: You’ve done penguins, a gun, a shoe, the brilliant “Snakes on a Plane” logo …
A: Well you’re looking at shadows, yes, we’ve done a lot of shadow work, but …
Q: You think I’m focusing too much on the shadow work.
A: You are focusing too much on shadows.
Q: Hear me out. Is there a shape you’ve been working on that you haven’t quite nailed yet? Something abstract like “Larry Craig’s wide stance?”
A: No, but I think we could undertake that and try to get that together. We could build pretty much anything in shadow. Shadow’s great stuff. You could be doing anything behind the screen. Nobody will know how you’re setting yourself up. In front of the screen on the other hand it’s complete inverse. People watch precisely what you do, and that’s the huge difference.
Q: A pilobolus has an “asexual fruiting structure.” How do you explain the kind of family values this reflects in the children’s workshops you hold?
A: Ah, well, we don’t talk about sex. (Laughs.) A lot of what Pilobolus does when it works is deal with issues of creativity. A lot of people think that art is about hacking away at stone or putting paint on canvas or jumping up and down and organizing steps, and that’s what they think dance is. In fact the big issues — and we are certainly involved in the big issues — have to do with creativity, and that’s what we focus on in workshops. It just happens that we focus on it through movement. I’m not talking about workshops with just dancers, I’m talking about dance for anybody.
Movement is the province of all. How do you get traction? How do you find yourself? How do you find your voice in movement? How do you get things done? How do you work with others? And happily, all of these issues extend in use well beyond the studio. We need these same skills in our life.
Q: I see some political ramifications in what you’re saying.
A: Mm-hmm. I’m running for president.
Q: Let me leave you with some advice: If you perform at the White House, do not form a pretzel, or the Secret Service may treat that as a threat to President Bush.
A: (Laughs.) Right. No, I’m not going to touch any of that. It’s too sensitive.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or firstname.lastname@example.org