Tuesday, August 14 , 2018, 6:59 pm | Fair 75º

 
 
 
 

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.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through Stripe below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Enter your email
Select your membership level
×

Payment Information

You are purchasing:

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >