Red Ball

Pilobolus—From a Petri Dish to the Stage

Red Ball

Pilobolus as everyone in the dance world and but perhaps not many outside will know, is a fungus. The life cycle of pilobolus begins with a black spore discharged onto a plant such as grass. An animal such as a horse then eats the plant and the spore. The pilobolus sporangium survives and emerges with the horse’s excrement. Once outside its host, spores germinate and grow within the excrement. Later, the fungus fruits to produce more spores. It’s a full life.

That night Pilobolus thoughtfully provided movies of pilobolus doing its frantic little dance in a petri dish. This brief article cannot convey the rapid, frantic, swirling activities of pilobolus in a culture. It ships around, virtually dances to and fro, and in short it is a very spritely creature.

And it’s easy to match the fungus with the dance group. Pilobolus the dance group exhibits some of the same sort of gyrations, gymnastics, coiling and uncoiling, leaping and twirling. The dancers’ energy is immense or so it seems to us onlookers—they clamber up and onto each other create multi-body trains on the ground and in the air, stand on their heads, writhe on the ground. solo and as part of a seeming caterpillar…and there is scarcely a pause between what one might have called “sets” in a different environment.

When I was there the place was packed, primarily with people from out of town. They were pretty demure with their responses. The rare Manhattanite could be noted by the yells of “whooo-hoo” and loud frenzied yelling and clapping. With one exception.

For a non dancer to hazard a comment like this is probably presumptuous but here is my evidence—there was just one performance for which all the audience stood, clapped, and yelled. It really was masterly. It was in two parts- the first was a movie which purported to be the dancers shot from below through a glass floor. You could see them grimacing, grinning, mugging for the camera even as they performed their lovely and strange gyrations in a train, through and through. Right next to the screen, the live dancers performed the same motions from a different angle- You saw them from slightly to the side. Eyes kept darting back and forth, back and forth— great energy, dancers grinning, audience yelling enthusiastically.

Yes, I’m intimating that otherwise the bright spritely explosive energy that so characterized Pilobolus in the past (I saw the outrageous, earthy, hilarious performance of the Garden of Earthly Delights years ago) seemed to have dimmed. The acrobatics were marvelous but with the exception of the performance above it seemed … without much feeling or excitement.

That said, it was still hebephrenic—I kept thinking of flocks of bird, of snakes, of apes, or bugs in varying sizes. References to entire animal kingdom seemed to me to be there. Even if I had reservations I was fascinated, brain whirring to find analogies for the creatures and the activities. Or machines—amazing to see a group of three bodies imitate a machine.

And the films provided analogues to the action on stage- one film of a flock of starlings which whirred like bees around and around appeared to me to introduce an act on the stage; another of explosions, of ordinary household objects attacked by a chain saw, or a bottle of wine exploded in a microwave, might with a stretch have been seen as connected to the following dance.

And as always it was sheerly breathtaking just as an example of bodily effort and energy. Men lifted women, women lifted men (not too often), and men lifted men. ..Bodies shifted and rolled so that sinuous action would take place all over the floor without a break. Or climb and climb and climb and then fall slowly and gradually. No strain could be detected.

Also, the videos sometimes had a force that the dance, I felt, lacked. But I am probably quibbling. I would love to take in another performance for comparisons purposes! I’ll bring my own bottle of wine.

Joyce Theatre
175 Eighth Avenue
Produced by Robby Barett and Michael Tracey

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