By Kate O’Neill
It was a grey March day in 1971 in Hanover, New Hampshire, and I was on my way to pick up the babysitter. I had no idea that I was about to see dance history being made.
At the time my husband, an MSU math professor, and I and our two small children were spending the academic year in Hanover while he was visiting at Dartmouth College. And I, a longtime dance buff, had been intrigued to learn that Dartmouth, then an all-male school, had recently hired a dance teacher, and exciting things were happening in her classes.
One day, halfway through the second term, I heard that the dance students would be performing for the first time at an upcoming concert. It was part of a Wednesday noon series showcasing the college’s performing arts students. It seemed like a good excuse to get a babysitter and take a break to find out more about what these college men were doing in their dance classes.
I was totally unprepared for what I saw at the concert. These dances were more like moving sculptures, as these four young men constantly rearranged themselves into ever-changing shapes.
They named their dance “Pilobolus,” after a light-loving barnyard fungus that propels its spores with extraordinary speed, accuracy and strength. The father of one of the dancers, Jonathan Wolken, had been studying the fungus in his biology lab.
“None of us at that time really knew what dance was,” Robby Barnett, one of the original foursome, told me when the now-famous Pilobolus dance company came to Wharton Center in January 2010. “Without previous dance training, we did what we were able to do from the luck of our approach. We had a fairly free idea of what dance comprised,” Barnett said.
Indeed, I had gone home after watching that first student concert in 1971 convinced I had seen dance moving in a new direction. And I was right. Just nine months later, the four Pilobolus dancers gave a performance at the studio of New York dancer Murray Louis. And someone persuaded New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff to see them. She wrote “a generally favorable review,” according to Barnett. Early in 1972, I read news of more Pilobolus performances in Dance Magazine. The small company, which had expanded to include two women – their Dartmouth teacher Alison Chase and Martha Clarke – was clearly taking off.
Within a few years, the troupe was touring major concert venues, including Michigan State University. The first time they came here they performed in the University Auditorium, before Wharton Center was built.
Now, on October 30, the company will be returning to the MSU campus for the sixth time, with a 7:30 p.m. performance in Wharton’s Cobb Great Hall.
The new show that Pilobolus will present here is titled Come to your senses. It combines dance, video and theater to create a journey through diverse worlds. The program explores our relationship to our senses and the playful celebration of our human orientation in the biosphere.
A few weeks ago, I had a chance to talk about Come to your senses with the present co-artistic directors of Pilobolus, Renée Jaworski and Matt Kent. Both previously were dancers in the company, and Jaworski has also danced in Momix (a dance company founded by Moses Pendleton, one of the original Pilobolus quartet). Like Pilobolus, Momix has appeared at Wharton several times, most recently during the 2018-19 season.
Jaworksi noted many similarities between the two companies: “What you see on stage is a group of people coming together to create an image they could not create on their own,” she said. “Both companies make use of light and shadow to create illusion, and both rely heavily on their dancers to participate in creating choreography.”
That was true of Gnomen, the oldest work on the upcoming Wharton program. Kent, one of the four dancers in the original production, remembers that he and the others were pretty new to the company when they helped to create the work with Pilobolus founders Wolken and Barnett.
“While working on Gnomen, we sent a video of our work to the composer,” Kent recalled. “I showed him I could do some throat singing, which he later included in the score. The taped music for the Wharton performance of Gnomen is from the taped cassette that I mailed off to the composer, Paul Sullivan, twenty-two years ago. People often ask, ‘Where can I purchase the music for Gnomen?’ but it exists only on the tape we use in our performances.”
The newest work on the Wharton program is Warp & Weft, a dance for three women, created in 2018 by Jaworski and Kent in collaboration with the dancers. Jaworski is excited about having a dance for three women, because “we never before have had more than two women in the company at any one time.” The work “ended up being about weaving different aspects of identity together to create a whole person,” Jaworski said. “We use a giant fabric (in the dance), which becomes many different personalities.”
The five dances on the program will be interspersed with videos, “little miniature pieces and experiments shown between each work,” says Jaworski.
The first video is about Pilobolus, the fungus. Another video is an X-ray of a man swallowing a hot dog. Other videos use lots of shadow images that Pilobolus is known for, Jaworski said.
The program concludes with a surprise, which Jaworski refused to give away.
“It happens at the curtain call,” was all she was willing to reveal.
Kate O’Neill is a retired dance critic for the Lansing State Journal and a huge lover of all things dance.