September 23, 2019

Dance troupe Pilobolus brings collaborative vision to Malibu

There’s no such thing as a typical Pilobolus performance. The Connecticut-based dance troupe has collaborated with cartoonists, filmmakers, puppeteers, radio producers and children’s authors to create one-of-a-kind spectacles that take dance out of the traditional realm. 

Since its founding by a group of Dartmouth College students in 1971, the company has built a global brand out of genre-defying, boundary-breaking work, combining innovative choreography, performance art and sheer physicality. Its signature shapes and shadow work have been featured on “Sesame Street,” “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and “Oprah,” and Pilobolus will bring its latest show to Pepperdine University’s Smothers Theatre in Malibu on March 25.

“It’s a defining characteristic of the company that we’re always creating or searching for something new,” said Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern, a Pilobolus dancer and dance captain. “We’re never at a halt. We’re always pressing forward and creating new work, exploring new ideas, and our interests expand beyond strict dance.” 

Pilobolus, named for a fungus that propels itself with speed, accuracy and strength, was created as an artistic collective run by four artistic directors. But by 2004, as the company started to achieve global success, its direction was up in the air. According to media reports at the time, the company was experiencing financial difficulties; there was also friction between the directors and a lack of a long-term vision. That same year, Israeli-born Itamar Kubovy was named the company’s first executive director. “It became clear that [Pilobolus] needed to have a clarification of its goals and its missions,” Kubovy said by phone from New York.

The best-known American modern dance companies were established to present the work of a single choreographer, such as José Limón, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham or Paul Taylor. Rather than being an eponymous company, Pilobolus was formed to serve the vision of a collective of artists, all of whom participate in choreographing and creating a piece. “So there was a real shot here where Pilobolus could become something new and the people who were guiding it could slowly grow and change,” Kubovy said.

Leading the company required walking a fine line between taking command and maintaining a long-cherished sense of radical democracy. The challenge was to preserve the company’s unique approach to creativity — the “deep, collaborative chaos out of which we make our work,” as Kubovy put it — while allowing business and financial decisions to be made efficiently.

Kubovy was born in Jerusalem and raised in New Haven, Conn., where he later graduated with a degree in philosophy from Yale. He went on to run theaters in Germany and Sweden and get involved in TV and film. Pilobolus’ ties to Israel go far beyond its executive director’s origins. The company regularly performs in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. As part of its effort to chart a new path, the company established the International Collaborators Project (ICP) in 2007, and celebrated by creating the inaugural production “Rushes,” a collaboration between Pilobolus co-artistic director Robby Barnett and Israeli choreographers Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak. 

During the company’s January 2008 tour of Israel, renowned photographer Robert Whitman captured Pilobolus interacting with iconic landscapes, including the Dead Sea, Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, hot springs and the streets of Haifa. In the pictures, the dancers occupy a latticed window in Jaffa, mirror the strata of limestone in the Judean Desert and make a human tower, frozen among Jerusalem passers-by.

“Being able to come back to the country of my birth with the kind of material and creative product of my work has been an enormous gift that Pilobolus has given me,” Kubovy said.

One of the collaborative pieces that Pilobolus will bring to Pepperdine is “The Inconsistent Pedaler,” an ICP project created with acclaimed Israeli fiction writer Etgar Keret and his wife, actress and filmmaker Shira Geffen. The pair directed the Israeli film “Jellyfish” together.

“[Keret] can use language so efficiently and so tersely to evoke an incredibly rich and surreal and paradoxical world that he then uses to say something about humanity,” Kubovy said. “It intrigued me, because so much of what dance is able to do very well is describe interaction between people, to externalize and physicalize emotion very well. What movement doesn’t do very well is convey plot.”

“Inconsistent Pedaler” plays on the idea that every family has a designated member who tries to fix everything and hold the family together. In order to bring that idea to life, the dance troupe placed a young woman atop a stationary bicycle on the side of the stage. When she pedaled, the family could move, and when she stopped, the family would slowly wind down into a state of suspended animation.

Another high-profile collaboration, this time with Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novelist Art Spiegelman, required freezing time within a frame, much like a comic strip panel. But dance requires motion. “A huge central drama of the process was about the tension between the movement and stillness,” Kubovy said. 

The resulting piece, “Hapless Hooligan in ‘Still Moving,’ ” is a noir love story told in the style of early comics, with dancers interacting in real time to Spiegelman’s spontaneous drawings and a score of early jazz and cabaret tunes. 

In 1999, Pilobolus brought in its first outside collaborators, children’s book author Maurice Sendak and illustrator Arthur Yorinks, to create “A Selection,” a meditation on the Holocaust. Sendak also designed the set and costumes.

In recent years, Pilobolus collaborated with the public-radio program Radiolab, bringing the show’s unique storytelling style about scientific discoveries to life on stage. They also worked with Grammy-winning pop band OK Go to create the kaleidoscopic, interactive music video “All Is Not Lost.”

“There’s a particular way in which we make work, both when we invite these people into our studio and when we make work on our own, and it’s really at the core of a group process,” Kubovy said.