Jonathan Wolken, one of the four creative Dartmouth College jocks who founded Pilobolus in 1971, was still—with Robby Barnett (another original Pilobolite) and Michael Tracy—one of its artistic directors when he died far too young on June 13, 2010. The company’s Joyce season is dedicated to him, and the opening-night gala featured two works involving his choreography.
Pilobolus’s renown is rooted in its shape-shifting abilities, and its best pieces twine humans into sculptural objects or metamorphosing flora and fauna that might have emerged in your dreams, if you had the creators’ gift for magic. The 1997 Gnomen—by Wolken, Barnett, and the original cast—fashions male bonding into a dreamy ritual, performed in near slow motion, with occasional eruptions. Each man in turn is singled out by the other three, but however punitive these ordeals occasionally look, Winston Dynamite Brown, Jun Kuribayashi, Nile H. Russell, and Christopher Whitney show more gentle concern than aggression or competition. The bells in Paul Sullivan’s score abet a few oblique religious allusions: Kuribayashi is lifted into slanted cruciform poses, and the other three stand together and rock him on the cradle of their lifted feet.
A similar smooth, even slower dynamic infuses Tracy’s post-Edenic duet Symbiosis (2001), wonderfully performed by Manelich Minniefee and Jenny Mendez. But Pilobolus choreographers enjoy tying human knots for comedic effect. Wolken’s 2009 Hitched features a bride and groom (Eriko Jimbo and Whitney), who begin in full wedding array and chase each other on and off the stage, shedding garments as they go. This is no hot wedding night; the two are just getting down to the business of lifelong squabbling and adjusting. Jimbo retains her long white gloves, but ladylike behavior isn’t her style. The relationship thrives on headlocks and tangles that look passingly erotic and definitely uncomfortable. In the end, the two hobble off, so weirdly conjoined that one weight-bearing foot is his, the other is hers, and one of them is walking backward.
In recent years, Pilobolus has branched out, developing projects with choreographers Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak, puppeteer Basil Twist, and writer-illustrator Maurice Sendak. The entrancing new Hapless Hooligan in “Still Moving” is the result of an unlikely collaboration with noir cartoonist Art Spiegelman. He, Tracy, the dancers, and animators Jason Patterson and Dan Abdo must have had many crazed moments trying to coordinate in time and space live performers, their crisp-edged, shadow-play images, and drawings that don’t always stay still and sometimes attach themselves to dancers. Imagine the title character, in shadow, trying to kill himself by hurling red cartoon bricks at his own head.
This hero is a sad-assed relative of the fellow in Frederick Burr Opper’s “Happy Hooligan” strip of the early 1930s. Against a glowing red-orange backcloth (lighting by Robert Wierzel), “Hap” (Kuribayashi) is born in silhouette with a tin can on his head, emerging from the outline of a giant baby’s bawling mouth; almost immediately, he’s thwacked by the stem of a rose he admires. Captions chart his life and overhead clouds bear words, expletives (%*&@#$!), and exclamations (“Ow!”). Music ranging from compositions by Erik Satie and Conlon Nancarrow to songs delivered by Mistinguett and Yma Sumac juice up the action.
In the most startling melding of forms, the dancers’ rear-projected shadows appear framed in three adjoining comic-strip boxes drawn by Spiegelman. In the left-hand one, Hap’s just-acquired girlfriend, Lulu (Annika Sheaff), cleans house with a feather duster and the two bathe, while in the third panel, a large, menacing Dick Tracy–type (Whitney) is dusted by a tiny, humble woman (Jimbo). Because of the shadow effect, the images can change sizes, so when Lulu trespasses from “her” home into the purlieu of the sadistic misogynist, and Hap seeks to defend her, he’s a small figure next to the broad-shouldered giant in the trench coat and fedora. Pow!
The characters must have doubles, since at times we see both the live humans dressed in Liz Prince’s witty costumes and their silhouettes. It’s in living color and three dimensions that Lulu tangos with her nemesis, is shot, and is borne away by skeletal goons (Brown and Russell). “Hap,” a humble, Chaplinesque Orpheus, pursues his Eurydice into death, past a gray graveyard littered with dead cartoon characters and a scene dominated by painted ghouls and a live witch on stilts. Lulu must contend with Spiegelman’s writhing green snakes and a huge head puffing a poisonous cloud of smoke (cigarettes are prominent in this tale—maybe because Spiegelman’s a smoker), but a shadow of Pan leads the lovers on. There’s no epiphany, but a paradise of sorts.
Spiegelman has said in interviews that he was going crazy in rehearsals because his drawings weren’t staying still. That’s the beauty of it.