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Show Guide for Pilobolus

Show Guide for Pilobolus

From what some thought would be an "easy A" dance class at Dartmouth College, emerged an acrobatic modern dance company fusing athletics, science and the body. Learn more about Pilobolus.
  • This performance will contain partial nudity.

Pilobolus is a unique modern-dance company, now in its 38th year of evolution. Pilobolus’ choreography seemingly bends the laws of physics to create dances of unique, gravity-defying dynamism.

“Pilobolus is a dance company…sort of,” says Pilobolus’ artistic director and founding member, Jonathan Wolken.  “The full name of the company is Pilobolus Dance Theatre, and it is an amalgam of those two things, dance and theatre, but we don’t think about dance in terms of traditional dance. We think of dance as a kind of wide-open geography, a great, vast landscape of all the movement possibility that there is with the human body.”

But describing Pilobolus as a mixture of dance and theatre is incomplete. Pilobolus features torsos flying through the air, great feats of strength, unimaginable balance acts and painted bodies slithering around stage to convey a narrative. “It’s definitely not interpretive dance,” assures Wolken. “Interpretive dance really leads people in the wrong direction. That kind of leaves people scratching their heads. All I know is that at Pilobolus, people are going to see something that is going to arrest their attention.”

Since its inception, Pilobolus has cultivated uncommon dance pieces that epitomize the strength and pliancy potential in the human body. The company continues to innovate uses of the human body in art. In recent years, Pilobolus’ group silhouette dances use shadow and light to turn the human form into the Statue of Liberty, camping sites, penguins and the Tower of Babel.

Today Pilobolus is a unique American arts organization of international influence. It has not, however, forsaken its original impetus and remains a deeply collaborative effort. The company’s three artistic directors and over 25 full- and part-time dancers contribute to one of the most popular and varied bodies of work in the history of the field. Nearly four decades of creative production testify to the company’s position as an arts collective of remarkable fruitfulness and longevity.

A Name for the Steadfast and Unique

Pilobolus (pronounced pīläb'ələs) the dance company is named after the plant pilobolus (crystallinus), a phototropic zygomycete. The sun-loving fungus grows in barnyards and pastures. It grows on a stalk as a small bladder, pressurized by cell sap and topped with a tiny black cap filled with spores. When the pilobolus are ripe, this entire sporangium is blasted off with incredible force and the little spore bags can shoot from its ¼-inch-tall body nearly eight feet—right over a cow. The feisty fungus reportedly accelerates from 0-45 mph in the first millimeter of flight.

The name Pilobolus suits a dance company that has, for nearly 40 years, grown through the creation of engaging and gravity-defying works that draw influence from vaudeville and acrobatics, use accompaniment as varied as Debussy and Radiohead, and range in scope from intimate solos and duets to full-company pieces.

The company has continued to change, expanding and refining its unusual collaborative methods to produce a body of over 100 choreographic works, and while it has become a stable and influential force in the world of dance, Pilobolus remains as protean and surprising as ever.

Three Pieces Make the Whole

The Company

Pilobolus started in a Dartmouth College dance class in 1971. A few male athletes took the required class for what they thought was an easy A, but teacher Alison Chase encouraged Michael Tracy, Jonathan Wolken and Robby Barnett to make dances that drew from their areas of expertise. A collaborative choreographic process emerged from that fusion of dance with athletics, science and the body. The process also fostered a unique weight-sharing approach to partnering that gave the young company a nontraditional—but powerful—new set of skills with which to create dances.

Pilobolus is based in Washington Depot, Connecticut and performs for stage and television audiences all over the world. Pilobolus works appear in the repertories of major dance companies - the Joffrey, Feld, Ohio, Arizona, and Aspen Santa Fe Ballets in the U.S., the Ballet National de Nancy et de Lorraine and the Ballet du Rhin in France, and Italy’s Verona Ballet - and the company has recently begun a series of major creative collaborations, including new productions with famed writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak; the Israeli choreographic team, Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak; and the remarkable American puppeteer, Basil Twist.

The Institute

The physical vocabularies of Pilobolus works are not drawn from traditions of codified dance movement but are invented. Movements emerge from intense periods of improvisation and creative play. This process has been the source of much interest, in response to which the company inaugurated the Pilobolus Institute, an educational outreach program using the art of choreography as a model for creative thinking in any field. The Institute offers sustained programs for both children and adults around the country, as well as a series of leadership workshops for corporations and business schools. Recent work includes programs at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, and the Babcock School at Wake Forest University. The Institute also maintains an ongoing residency in the Theater Studies Program at Yale University.

The Creative Services

The third arm is Pilobolus Creative Services, a choreographic and performance collective providing movement design and production for commercial applications in business and advertising. PCS has made television spots, including their notable spot for Hyundai. In 2007, the company created and presented six acclaimed performances during The 79th Annual Academy Awards, as well producing a series of original segments for The Oprah Winfrey Show. PCS has also produced two books for national distribution, Twisted Yoga and The Human Alphabet, and releases an annual calendar of dance photography in collaboration with a number of noted American photographers.

Pilobolus Staff

Artistic Directors

  • Roddy Barnett, Touring Company – Barnett was born and raised in Adirondacks and graduated Dartmouth College in 1972. Prior to his involvement with Pilobolus, Barnett worked as a technical metal worker, an instructor for Outward Bound, Inc., a garden and landscape designer, and has taught skiing and high school art. Barnett manages the Pilobolus company tours.
  • Michael Tracy, Creative Services – Tracy was born in Florence. He began studying choreography in 1969 with Ray Cook and Alison Chase and began collaborating with the other directors of Pilobolus in 1970, graduating magna cum laude from Dartmouth College in 1973 with a BA in Psychology. He has been one of Pilobolus’ artistic directors since 1974 and in 1980 became the sole artistic director touring with Pilobolus, training, directing and performing with the company through 1987, a total of 14 years. He continues to choreograph for and co-direct Pilobolus, as well as to set works on the Joffrey, Ohio, Hartford, Nancy (France) and Verona (Italy) ballet companies. Tracy manages special projects for Pilobolus and teaches at Yale University.
  • Jonathan Wolken, Development – Wolken co-founded Pilobolus in 1971. He learned about the fungus pilobolus while researching its photoreceptor mechanism in his father’s biophysics lab. Wolken graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in Philosophy. Wolken has also choreographed for the Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s production of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and for the Royal Danish Ballet. For many summers,Wolken taught Pilobolus’ Summer Workshops in Maine. Since 1991 Jonathan has also served as Pilobolus’ Development Director, focusing on fundraising for the company.


Pilobolus’ Accolades

All three branches of Pilobolus have received a number of prestigious honors, including the Berlin Critics Prize, the Brandeis Award, the New England Theatre Conference Prize, and a Primetime Emmy Award for outstanding achievement in cultural programming. In 2000 Pilobolus received the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for lifetime achievement in choreography, and in 2004 the company was featured on CBS’ 60 Minutes. Pilobolus has made other television appearances, including The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, and Late Night with Conan O'Brien. In 2007 Robby Barnett, Michael Tracy and Jonathan Wolken received the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Endowment Fellowship from Dartmouth College. In 2008, Pilobous became the first modern American dance company to perform in Armenia. Pilobolus’ 2009 commercial for the NFL: Ravens vs. Cowboys was nominated for an Emmy.

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