Founded by a bunch of college coeds in the early 1970s, rooted in the democratic process and a spirit of playful experimentation, Pilobolus began as a good-natured rebellion against the modern dance establishment. Today, the group known best for acrobatic feats and visually dazzling productions remains a maverick company, though not in the ways you might expect.
Though its founders had little formal dance training, Pilobolus has become one of the most popular and successful modern dance troupes in the world. And while many contemporary dance organizations take a more purist approach to making work, Pilobolus welcomes corporate commissions. They’ve performed for everything from Hyundai ads to the Oscars, and they recently filmed a commercial for Ford of Canada, forming a car out of human bodies for the “Powered by You” advertising campaign. Critics and dance insiders are often critical of this market-savvy approach, but Pilobolus doesn’t mind. They’re getting gigs, the public loves them as much as ever, and anyway, they like to ruffle a few feathers.
In advance of the company’s October 7 performance in Santa Barbara, I spoke on the phone with associate artistic director Renée Jaworski. She acknowledged Pilobolus’s popularity but said it wasn’t what they’d aimed for. “To be honest, we love it when people don’t like us,” she said. “If we can get somebody’s juices going and have someone be annoyed with what we’re doing, we’re like, ‘Yes! We’re making people think differently.’” One of the champions of that lighthearted, up-yours attitude was Jonathan Wolken, a founding member and co-artistic director up until his untimely death in June. Wolken was 60 years old; he died from complications related to a stem-cell transplant. Three months later, the company is reeling from his loss.
Even in a democracy, changes in leadership are unsettling, and at the same time Pilobolus grieves Wolken’s passing, they’re hard at work restructuring the organization. Jaworski, who joined the company as a dancer 10 years ago and still performs, said it hasn’t been easy. “It’s been a hard change, not just managerially, but also emotionally,” she acknowledged. “We had kind of been planning for this because we knew he was taking a big risk getting this procedure done, but you’re never really fully prepared.”
One of the biggest shifts for the dancers is Wolken’s absence in the studio. Jaworksi and fellow veteran dancer Matt Kent have taken more responsibility for rehearsal direction and choreography, and Pilobolus will continue to collaborate with other artists and companies. When asked what the future looks like, Jaworski talked about a mixture of the old and the new. “We’ve got a great legacy to keep going,” she said. “At the same time, the company has always taken the innovative approach, pushed the envelope of what dance is and could be.”
The program they’ll bring to the Granada reflects this duality, highlighting both the classic works that earned Pilobolus its name and more recent ones that give a picture of where they’re headed. Among the former is the mesmerizing solo “Pseudopodia,” choreographed by Wolken in 1973, and “Gnomen,” an all-male quartet created by Wolken and fellow artistic director Robby Barnett in 1997. They’ll also perform “Megawatt,” Wolken’s group work full of high-energy thrashing and set to Radiohead, Primus, and Squarepusher. Newer pieces on the program include “Contradance,” Jaworski and Kent’s narrative dance about an outsider in a new community, and “Dog Id,” an excerpt from the evening-length work Shadowland, which tells the story of a young woman’s coming of age.
While the main company Pilobolus Dance Theater is in Santa Barbara, Pilobolus Creative Services will be in Europe touring Shadowland, and the Pilobolus Institute will be working on educational programs from the company’s base in Washington Depot, Connecticut. This triad model is one example of the way Pilobolus operates like a business, and Jaworski cites the setup as a key to their success. “The company is not run like an arts organization; it’s run like a business,” she said. “We’re always thinking about how to continue the growth of the company.”
There are other modern dance companies out there following a business model — among the best known of these is Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which has grown into a dance empire based in the heart of New York City. What’s different about Pilobolus is the collaborative nature of the work, and Jaworski says that’s never going away. “There will never be one choreographer in the room telling everyone what to do,” she said. “We talk about choreography by committee — it’s a joke, but it’s also the truth. When you have someone else in the room to tell you, ‘That works; that doesn’t work,’ you get a much better product. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been in existence for 40 years.”
As for the future, Jaworski hopes to continue in the tradition of the Pilobolus founders, though she knows it won’t ever be the same as it was in the beginning. “The six original artistic directors got together, and nothing will ever replace that,” she said. “We’d be lying to ourselves if we tried. We need to focus on moving forward with that sense of collaborative spirit.”
You can bet they won’t stop innovating, either. “The founders made something out of nothing,” Jaworski said, “and that’s what we want to continue to do, so every time we start a new project, we ask, ‘How can we do something that’s different from before?’”
Pilobolus will perform at the Granada Theatre on Thursday, October 7, at 8pm. For tickets, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.