Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Uplifting dance

A man and a woman lie on the floor in a coital position. He tenderly touches her face before lifting her high above his head. Two more dancers are sucked in and onto his body; like snakes out of Medusa’s head, four dancers writhe about, supported by one man. This is Pilobolus.

Named after a fungus that quickly sprouts upwards, Pilobolus took longer to form, concentrating more on collaboration and discovery than bounding to fruition. Created by students at Dartmouth in 1971, Pilobolus is a widely celebrated dance company whose work is performed around the world.

Original company member Jonathan Wolken describes the process with wit and candor. “It was the early ’70s,” he says. “We had no intention of being dancers. We were just students who discovered the possibility of working on making dances. Pilobolus the company came when we graduated.”

In the beginning, Pilobolus was “struggling to stay on surface of survival,” he continues. “You don’t think about how tentative things are. You’re just going and having a fabulous time going and thinking and doing and being.”

Pilobolus doesn’t look like a traditional dance company; there is no corps of dancers performing identical steps as a backdrop for soloists. The choreography is created collaboratively and is highly physical, often requiring dancers to pile on top of and carry one another, regardless of size or sex.

No movement is too outrageous or too pedestrian to be considered dance. This democratic approach to movement comes out of Pilobolus’ tradition of play and collaboration.

“Originally we worked as four guys collectively doing all the work – technical aspects, dancing, choreography,” Wolken says. “We lived in the same house, starved together and toured together.”

Instead of creating a technique that could be practiced and perfected, providing a vocabulary of steps from which to create dances, Pilobolus prefers to play. Every dance, and every day, starts anew in the studio and in the bodies of the dancers. Improvisation opens the door to discovering new movement.

They hold to one maxim – the dance must be visually interesting. Without the dance company dictating steps, imagination or common sense steps in.

“The first part in creating dances, the key, the wellspring, is this common-sense idea,” Wolken says. “Anything you can invite or possibly imagine or create might happen in the studio. We encourage that, and vocabulary is developed for each piece. That’s what keeps it fresh.”

The arresting visual images created by such seemingly impossible maneuvers have made the company famous, leading to gigs at the Olympics, building openings and major broadcast commercials. Their fame has opened doors to commercial ventures that wouldn’t be open to traditional dance companies.

“You learn how to do it when you want to,” Wolken says. “How do you learn to learn, learn to do more without breaking what you’ve got?”

But strength, Wolken argues, isn’t the key to lifting people. The company doesn’t lift weights to stay in shape – they just lift people. The art of lifting people has to be learned within one’s own body. For Pilobolus this process of learning to stretch rules and transform what the body can do is akin to race car driving and sauce making. Pilobolus’ philosophy contends that the process of experimentation, collaboration and discovery are what lead us to the unearthing of movement from within.

“The studio is like a lab, a kitchen, a workplace that we all recognize,” Wolken says. “The principles work everywhere – in business, in the culinary world. In fact you can hold yourself to the same standards, learn how to create with what you’ve got. These principals apply in the studio and should come across onstage, but they also apply everyday wherever you are.”

Pilobolus’ upcoming Chicago show will feature four works – one new and three older pieces. Aquatica, the new piece, is a full-cast meditation on the creatures under the sea as seen through the eyes of a young girl who is lulled under water.

Walklyndon was Pilobolus’ first dance. Created in 1971, it showcases the comedic possibilities of true slapstick with the bodies of six dancers. Day Two is another older work. Set to music by Brian Eno and Talking Heads, the piece details the wonder of existence, replicating the profound occasion of the creation of the world. The final piece on the program, Ben’s Admonition, was created in 2002. It tells the story of Ben Franklin’s “we must all hang together” statement at the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Pilobolus reinvents the principle of working with what you’ve got, inviting audiences to see a world of possibilities within the body while teaching about the human experience along the way.

Pilobolus Dance Theatre is playing Oct. 14 and Oct. 15 at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St. Tickets cost $29 to $60, although student pricing is available. Tickets and showtimes are available by calling (312) 462-6300.

Weinberg senior Emily Berger is a PLAY writer. She can be reached at

[email protected].

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Uplifting dance