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Review: Pilobolus’ ‘Maximus’ Stretches Beyond the Limits of Dance

Once seen, never forgotten. New York City-based Pilobolus, with its wildly physical, quasi-gymnastic, seriously innovative, brilliantly body-balanced, razors-edge programming has been shaking up the contemporary dance scene around the world since the 1970s.

This fan first saw the company in Seattle circa 1976. That riveting and mind-bending experience forever turned on its head my understanding of time, space, narrative and movement.

UCSB Arts & Lectures has been hosting Pilobolus in Santa Barbara every three years for some time. It seems like they’re family now, presenting workshops in the community as well as offering their signature touring dance programs to full houses each time they visit.

Pilobolus’ show at the Granada Theatre on Jan. 28 had as its thematic and visual conceit the idea of a traveling itinerate gypsy circus and its repertoire of acts. Titled Pilobolus Maximus, the program featured collaborative choreographic creations by members of the company that stretched the imagination, tickled the funny bone and posited enigmas.

Pilobolus’ show at the Granada Theatre on Jan. 28, titled “Pilobolus Maximus,” featured collaborative choreographic creations by members of the company.
Pilobolus’ show at the Granada Theatre on Jan. 28, titled “Pilobolus Maximus,” featured collaborative choreographic creations by members of the company. (UCSB Arts & Lectures photo)

Bookending the evening’s fascinating program was Jonathan Wolken’s "á la B'zyrk (Intro/Outro)," a kind of tableau piece to set the circus theme at the beginning of the evening, then break it down visually and musically at the program's end.

Powerful works were the heady content between bookends, including 2017 masterpieces "Branches and Echo in the Valley," "[esc]" created in 2013 that examines the escape acts of Houdini as movement art, and one of Pilobolus’ best known works, "Rushes," created in 2007.

"Branches" was commissioned by Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 2017. Scored primarily in the sound tapestry of nature, particularly birdsong and cascading water sounds, the dancers are found clustered as a flock in one corner of the stage at the opening of the piece, instantly confounding special reality with the illusion that the action of the piece is in a forest canopy.

Interacting with one another in the ageless struggle that is survival in the wild, members of this avifauna are at times raucously amusing — herd instinct is common to all species — but also contemplative, even pitiable.

Sometimes the flock pairs off — in one case for an elegant sequence with three couples. Body language and sounds synch with stunning and sometimes hilarious accuracy throughout the piece’s several sections; a soundscape of flapping wings, and calls to others are mimicked by the dancers to perfection. The piece flows, soars, breaks up and re-forms in homage to our planet’s ancient avian wonders.

New work and superb company creative collaboration "Echo in the Valley" found the same amazing leadership trio from "Branches" — sound designer David Van Tiegham, lighting designer Thom Weaver and costume designer Liz Prince — creating a stunningly different visual and aural world.

The Great Depression, Appalachia, coal mines and their discontents, political protest and popular unrest — powerful Americana — are the topics of this powerful piece.

The collective choreographic cohesion was seamless as a narrative in movement unfolded, from the brilliant but chilling opening sequence, coal miner helmet lights piercing a pitch-black stage like a scene from The War of the Worlds, through a visual and aural portrait of the Appalachia of FDR, including nods to step dancing and the heartbreaking folk and gospel tunes so distinguishable to the region — a necessary homage to the work’s namesake.

The story revisits in a kind of reverse visual metaphor the chilling opening scene of the piece; this time, a literal look at the end point of a coal miner’s expectation then as now, rural poverty and malign death. A luxury of fascinating movement design shaped the saga, Pilobolus’ legendary proto-gymnastic prowess on stunning display in solos, duos, trios, quartets and ensemble sets. The work’s last scene, a particularly moving choreographic transit through death to an ephemeral beyond, gave "Echo in the Valley" a particularly satisfying afterglow.

The Houdini homage "[esc]" created by Penn & Teller with collaborative choreographic assistance from the artists of Pilobolus in 2013 is a delightful choreographic take on the escape artist’s most famous visual illusions and slights of hand.

Houdini’s escapes morphed by Pilobolus to works of movement art. Two men chained to a pole, for example, free themselves in slow motion — balletic gymnastics of superb beauty. In another escape, a woman frees herself artfully and rhythmically from duct tape bondage to a chair.

A trademark Houdini escape trick involving switching bodies and burlap bags used as a hook at the beginning of the piece is resolved nicely with legitimate and surprisingly well-executed slight of hand (and trap door?) finesse.

"Rushes," the oldest piece on the program and likely one of Pilobolus’ best known, is the jaw-dropping work of Israeli choreographers Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak. Created in 2007, the piece coyly utilizes a standard acrobatic prop — a circle of small chairs.

The dancers interact with their inanimate partners on various occasions and sometimes in curious ways. The chair-as-dance-partner schtick is just the surface of an iceberg of moody, changeable sequences including a stunning and terrifying segment in which a bulk of chairs reveals itself to be a man ensnared by them.

Angst and disorientation finally yield to the peaceable kingdom of love — the single hanging light seen on stage at the beginning of the piece, turned off by a human hand. No curtain calls. End of show. Powerful.

Noozhawk contributing writer Daniel Kepl can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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