“Ninety-nine percent fat-free,” murmured my friend. He didn’t intend a compliment. But while Pilobolus’s low-cal choreography rarely nourishes the brain, it’s matchless summer fare—clever, funny, acrobatic, often beautiful. During the company’s 35th-anniversary season, you can experience the jock humor that took root in 1971—after founders Robby Barnett, Lee Harris, Moses Pendleton, and Jonathan Wolken emerged from Alison Chase’s composition class at Dartmouth—as well as the eroticism and mystery that entered the picture when Chase and Martha Clarke joined the men in 1973.
Humor powers both the oldest and the newest works on Program 2 at the Joyce. In Walklyndon (1971), a catalogue of wacky pedestrian encounters choreographed by the original male quartet, today’s Jeffrey Huang, Jun Kuribayashi, Manelich Minniefee, and Edwin Olvera, plus Jenny Mendez, bump, walk over, and get stuck on one another in doltishly improbable ways. The new Memento Mori, credited to Wolken and performers Renée Jaworski and Andrew Herro, romps off a very loose scenario, accompanied by recorded Debussy, Garbarek, Bjork, and Mozart. The dancers hobble on, a shabby, bent-over old couple; hardly have they seated themselves at a little table than they’re jerking each other around both literally and figuratively. He proposes several times, but only at the end of the piece is he able to locate the ring in his pocket. Maybe they’re traveling down memory lane when they yank their outer duds off and pas de deux—she (still wearing specs) lifting him into leaps—and, to fine comic effect, lip-synch Florence Foster Jenkins hooting the Queen of the Night’s famously florid aria. Then they put on their hats and coats and totter away.
Chase’s enigmatic 2002 Ben’s Admonition has a clearer logic. Two men hang from a noose by a foot or a hand, although their feet touch the floor. Dramatic tension shapes their acrobatics. Huang and Olvera behave like Siamese twins connected by the equipment they swing on—balanced, but contentious. In the end, Olvera slips free, leaving Huang inertly dangling, and attaches himself to another noose. It’s distressing to learn that Pilobolus’s board voted Chase out as an artistic director, and that the status of works she composed for the company is in contention. Her dark, delicately eccentric pieces bring a particular, and valuable, flavor to the repertory.
The meat of Pilobolus performances lies in the fantasies created with human bodies, as in the blissed-out, rainy-weather antics of the popular Day Two, directed by Pendleton and choreographed in 1980 by seven early Pilobolites. In Aquatica (2005)—also composed collaboratively by Michael Tracy with former and present dancers—the pretext of daydream engenders uncanny and beguiling visions of ocean life. Jaworski picks up what must be a seashell and, listening to it, falls into the world of marine creatures rolling over the floor, their legs (fringed by Liz Prince’s costumes) waving like sea grass. She even acquires a girlfriend (Mendez) who leads her through caves formed by four males and out onto the reefs of their backs, while Marcelo Zarvos’s score ripples, and Neil Peter Jampolis’s lighting swims from sunny to darker depths.
Two guys linked back to back can either act like clamshells to trap deepwater novice Jaworski or become sea horses to ride. The two women “walk” by standing on crawling men—bringing to mind a similar dreamy promenade in the wonderful 1973 Monkshood’s Farewell. Jaworski’s terrific in Aquatica, as she is in everything—skilled as a dancer, subtle as an actress, fleet, strong, and able to minimize the effort that, say, brings her to stand slanted on a man’s bent back, serene as he walks and turns. Sadly, this is her last season dancing with the company.
An air-conditioned theater, your annual Pilobolus fix. . . Go for it.