Pilobolus at Pepperdine: Dance’s Favorite Fungus Turns Fifty

Dance

Fifteen times performing at Pepperdine University in Malibu! Pilobolus approaches that benchmark, bringing a show on January 25 entitled “Big Five Oh,” in celebration of the beloved acrobatic dance troupe’s fiftieth birthday. With seven diverse works presented on stage, it should be a party. Musing on this occasion, I found myself wondering about the company’s dancers. The best person to ask is former Pilobolus dancer Matt Kent, who along with fellow alum, Renée Jaworski (he dates to 1996, she to 2003), serves as the company’s co-artistic directors.  

What kind of person, I wondered, gravitates (or un-gravitates, as the case may be) to this dance company, famously founded in 1971 by two Dartmouth College undergraduates, Moses Pendleton and Martha Clarke. Who enjoys the signature style of weightless, free-flying, body-bending, physical jokes & story-telling that has attracted audiences for, now, fifty years? Are they serious? Frivolous? Masochists? Displaced circus folk? Genetically prone to standing upside down? In a cross-country telephone chat, Matt Kent suggests they are among dance’s most adventurous, open-minded players who share a devilish urge to reinvent the wheel whenever possible.

Not just Matt Kent’s moptop corkscrew hair screams Pilobolus. So does his eclectic resume. He has choreographed horses, Chinese acrobats, giant puppets, zombies on the The Walking Dead, jugglers, break dancers, actors, LED umbrellas and dancers.

Speaking by phone from across the country, Kent admits that Pilobolus does appeal to special dancers, and vice-versa: “We do attract certain personality types. They may be virtuosic technicians, but they are also people with an opinion; they have something to say. They bring their own thoughts onto the stage to the performance.”

At the Connecticut-based Pilobolus, says Kent, “There is not just room for our dancers’ input; it is demanded of them. They have to be comfortable being put into uncomfortable positions, they need a sense of humor, they have a sense of irreverence or playfulness. We have had people who did an amazing audition, but when asked ‘Can you change that a little bit?’ sometimes they don’t know what to do”

“From our audition process we can tell if it is going to be a fit — and we have a really good track record.” According to Kent, “They catch your eye for a quality of radiating presence.” But, okay, there are certain very stringent physical qualifications. No, not tall, short, thin, or muscular. Rather, Kent says, tongue-in-cheek, “We look for dancers who are spherically even,” Asked for further explanation, he replies, “They are round, they work upside down as well as they do right side up.”

Kent has remained with the Pilobolus family for decades. And he is dedicated: “I loved it so much [as a dancer] that I felt like it should be available to the world in perpetuity. Which is why Renée and I are running the company after founders have retired.” Pilobolus, says Kent, is not an autocratic organization. “It is democratic, we are preserving the vibe of a dance collective,” he says, hearkening the company’s hippie roots at Dartmouth. Then he adds with a laugh, “We never achieve it, but we keep trying.”  

The fiftieth is such an unexpected, thrilling anniversary, says Kent: “This Big Five-Oh — you are going to find a different world, so get your inter-dimensional passports ready!! It’s happening not just in a theater but on different planes. Pilobolus is accessible, we’re trying to light up different parts of the brain. That’s what makes dance so special, it means so many things at the same time. And it occupies a dreamlike landscape.”

“We are so fortunate to be able to do what we do. People like us and we can continue innovating and keep that ideal alive. We’ve gone from a crazy little college department to a real dance company.”

Dance critic Debra Levine is founder/editor/publisher of arts●meme.


Pilobolus: The Big Five-Oh! | Lisa Smith Wengler Center for the Arts, Smothers Theatre, Pepperdine University, Wed Jan 25

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