by Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal
Still Moving | Pilobolus at 40
A Film by Jeffrey Ruoff
New Boston Films DVD
Jeffrey Ruoff’s Still Moving | Pilobolus at 40 was the official selection at several film festivals last year and it is indeed a very entertaining, if sketchy, documentary about the creative beginnings of that amorphous movement entity known as Pilobolus. Actually, instead of dance troupe, they prefer to the category of arts organism. The film is an overview into the creative minds of three of the founding artistic directors- Jonathan Wolken, Michael Tracy and Robby Barnett.
Ruoff explains that he wanted to plunge into Pilobolus and document “Many different aspects of the company…At 40, a time of vulnerability for any dance company with archival history, recollection, cinema verite and performance footage.” Past that, this is a compelling overview of the company and a most poignant as a tribute to Jonathan Wolken, who died in 2010 and is featured in many of the interview clips about the start of the company.
Wolken, the son of a research biologist explains that the group is based on a “Phototropic fungus. That ripens it grows a neck, then a head, which contain its spores and it grows and twists to the light, then when it’s ready… it explodes.” and that is basically how the company made its mark on dance and dance theater. Ruoff’s follows the current company on the road and in the studio, but just glancingly.
Flashback to Dartmouth College in 1971, the year the sports heavy school finally allowed women to be in the undergraduate schools. That year, choreographer and teacher Allison Chase (just out of UCLA) started a dance class as an offshoot of the Dartmouth theater department and found herself working with 30 jocks. From those athletes came the original core group who ended up living together in a house after college and experimenting with movement.
There was some hazy authorship creating the first piece for three performers in cleaved to each other’s body and was “an image and it would morph into another image,” Tracy recalls. Wolken claimed he gave the piece the name Pilobolus; Chase talked them into taking the piece to New York, to the shock and delight of audiences there.
The artistic directors described the fledging group as not knowing whether Pilobolus would work as a dance company or a philosophy. “Instead of an organic farm, we made dance. We were an organism in a bubble that didn’t know what kind of censors we had.” Tracy said. Later he observes how they have to get trained dancers joining the company to forget everything they formerly learned.
“Our practical interest in science is imagery. What does a cell look like? The human body is an extraordinarily dexterous and coordinating thing and when you attach six human beings together, you disable that ability, you kind of change it back to a simpler structure.“ Barnett describes a key to one aspect of their aesthetic. Barnett calls the company itself the greatest achievement “Performance deforms the process.” But that is the compromise to keep the company alive.
There is a compelling backstage drama about company dancer Matt del Rosario, who is coming back too early from an injury to perform in one of their signature pieces, Symbiosis. After a series of precarious lift patterns with his female partner he almost drops her and himself collapses, admitting that he was probably at 70 percent, but pretending he was 100 percent. The footage of this incident is hard to watch, but very instructive. Typical to the Pilobolus philosophy, del Rosario’s primary concern is that his “brothers and sisters” will have to “pick up slack” for him.
There are also clips from their collaboration in another media to the creative surprise to both, with graphic artist Art Spiegelman, who describes his faux contentious relationship with Pilobolus. “If I can’t smoke, can you get the dancers to stop moving around so fucking much.” His medium was comic strip boxes. Using computerized equipment instead of a brush, the dancers bodies were ’painted’ on the strip and transferred back to live movement.
Ruoff doesn’t linger on one area long enough for it to get too heady and even though the documentary contains fascinating archival footage, it is spare on film of Pilobolus on stage. A missed opportunity since they always have an unexpected visual impact.
The clips Ruoff does have of Pilobolus performing on stage are fantastic. There is a section showing a performance of Wolken’s brilliant Gnomen from 2010, which is already a company classic. Four men, “transforming each other” with movement “is a magnificent piece that ends up being about the individual and the group.” Tracey observes. “Gnomen is symbolic of the human relationship of the creative processes of Pilobolus.“a tribute quality, or a memorial quality to it.” Wolken’s choreography sums up the creative process of Pilobolus and it is lyrical, poetic, athletic and funny.
Official Website: http://www.pilobolusfilm.com/home
DVD’s for sale at www.pilobolusfilm.com/dvd