Honorable Fungus Turns 30

Time's Passage Celebrated, Remembered, and Mourned

As morels appear after a May rain, Pilobolus, named for another fungus, sprouts at the Joyce every July (through the 28th this 30th-anniversary season) to tickle audiences with its entrancingly perverse contortions.

Pilobolus's most magical moments are mysterious, pungently symbolic, or giddily gymnastic, like the opening of Alison Chase's 2000 Tsu Ku-Tsu, when three crouching figures bear three others standing erect as statues in a holy-day parade; or Benjamin Pring's enthralling acrobatic solo in the same piece; or, in Robby Barnett and Jonathan Wolken's 2000 Tantra Aranea, the altering relationship between enchantress Josie Coyoc and her bemused prey, Matt Kent.

Davenen, the new-to-New York work on Program A, deals with issues of Jewish prayer and mysticism. The Klezmatics provide wonderful music. Neil Peter Jampolis lights the piece almost garishly to suggest firelight and midnight. Some of the images Barnett and Wolken have designed in collaboration with the dancers are striking. Standing and bowing stiffly becomes a refuge from excess or temptation. The six performers cluster to rock or spin lumberingly. Kent bedevils Gaspard Louis, pulling him up by the skin of his chest. There's almost a story. Otis Cook quakes into trance and begins intense teacher-pupil manipulations with Pring. Pring and Renee Jaworski undulate into love; back to back, they arch and dip their heads beneath each other's spines, as if forbidden to touch with hands. Cook, in emotional torment, ties Pring in knots; released, Pring knots himself. Jaworski can't rouse him from prayer.

Prayer Meeting: Benjamin Pring (left) and Otis Cook in Pilobolus's Davenen
photo: Carolina Kroon
Prayer Meeting: Benjamin Pring (left) and Otis Cook in Pilobolus's Davenen

All six performers (including Coyoc) are usually onstage. The background actions work best when the dancers either react directly to the foreground events or echo them. Too often, in this very specific work, the community resorts to Pilobolitic clichés of leverage, and perhaps fearing other clichés, the choreographers avoid references to foot-lively Jewish dance until the curtain call, when everyone can finally scratch the Klezmatics' sweet itch.


In 1970, Twyla Tharp's The One Hundreds was a witty and rigorous exercise. Two deadpan dancers performed 100 11-count phrases, then five each performed 20 simultaneously, then 100 people walked onstage and performed the whole thing in 11 seconds. The phrases were supposed to be easy enough for anyone to learn. These days, Tharp presents The One Hundreds as a happy, carnivalesque tribute to the '60s, with prizes for the best costumes assembled by the community recruits and applause-meter ratings for the company member who does the best run-through while sitting down. At Jacob's Pillow recently, she also showed footage of interviews conducted during the teaching process and guided the great and large African dance guru Chuck Davis through one of the phrases. What the smart little movement parcels lost in immaculateness when company members performed them in relay they gained in audience appeal. Tharp traded the exhilarating sight of 100 people suddenly appearing, dancing for 11 seconds, and vanishing for the communal vision of them seated onstage watching before moving in to create an instant Woodstock. The audience almost learned the phrases; when, in another dance, John Selya did a movement that recalled one of them, people chuckled, pleased with their own powers of observation.

For her small company of virtuosos, Tharp dreams up movement that no "ordinary" person could even imagine doing. The casual ease sometimes displayed by members of the troupe she dissolved in 1988 has been superseded by heroism in the face of fiendish intricacy and a driven pace. Since the astonishing "Golden Section" from The Catherine Wheel, the ante has been upped to platinum. It's with physical brilliance that Keith Roberts and Ashley Tuttle negotiate the pugnacious-friendly complexities of the marvelous second duet from Known by Heart (made for Ethan Stiefel and Susan Jaffe of American Ballet Theatre).

The new Westerly Round suggests Tharp wanted to take a break after her recent "big" pieces to Beethoven and Brahms and do a lovable dance. The Coplandesque but pressured "American" sound of Mark O'Connor's Call of the Mockingbird inspired a quartet that might be happening at a Grange Hall square dance on fast-forward. Elizabeth Parkinson, John Selya, Benjamin Bowman, and Alexander Brady sashay in a tight circle, weave a grand right and left, play crack-the-whip, form a Russian-peasant kick line. Parkinson's the gleeful cowgirl-queen of the county fair, and everyone wants to dance with her. She and Selya slide into unison as if by intuition, but she leaves for a while with Bowman. You get used to seeing her being given a whirl by one guy while two dance appraisingly in the background. She's democratic enough to dive into everyone's arms at once. In this calculatedly endearing work, "behavior" and focused interaction ride atop the bucking bronco of dazzling choreography.


On April 1, Dani Nikas gave a party in a downtown loft. Family, colleagues, former students at Dalton and elsewhere, and friends she'd made since her first days in New York with Kei Takei's Moving Earth gathered to dance for and with her, or read poems, or make music. We feasted, and 13 women performed a traditional Greek dance in honor of the heritage our hostess treasured. Guests drew tarot cards that paired them for a final tango.

Dani performed too—in her trio intended as part of a longer work, and in a solo. She had become increasingly drawn to the spoken word, history, biography. At one point in the solo, wearing a wedding dress, she said quietly, as if to herself, "I could go at any time." As her friend Jessie Levey said, "Dani was constantly creating something." In that party, she created her farewell. After a two-and-a-half-year struggle with colon cancer, she wanted to sing out yet again that, for her, dance and life were one. On June 26, not yet 43, she surrendered both.

 
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