Richardson — One of the challenges of a dance company, especially those in the modern/contemporary vein, is how to approach the audience. Does the group present works that are abstract or more literal? Make the patrons think or simply entertain? Challenge their views of dance or cater to popular preferences?
Then there’s the matter of innovation and growth, an obvious expectation for established choreographers and companies. How far does one go to showcase new offerings that engage current fans while drawing in new viewers? At times the resulting works can wind up overly abstract, confusing, and random.
Such has been the case with Pilobolus, a small group of dancers from Connecticut. With a collaborative spirit, the group has spent the last 45 years creating works with non-traditional partnering, a style that utilizes the physics of the body to develop unique lifts, shapes, and maneuvers. The visual effect is stunning, yet in recent years, performances have elicited mixed reviews, with many audience members scratching their heads.
The company’s performance on Saturday night presented at the Charles W. Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts in Richardson, however, struck a lovely balance of innovation and accessibility, making it one of the most entertaining productions from the group.
They began this openness by keeping the curtain open. Patrons entered the theater find company members warming up on stage and crossing the proscenium to greet friends in the house, while the indie rock music over the speaker created a casual mood.
In between pieces, the production crew reset the stage in full view, while a short video played. These films creatively displayed a range of effects in animation and cinematography. The best, an Academy Award-nominated short “Fresh Guacamole” by PES, uses stop-motion animation with amusing results (video is above).
To open the performance, Shawn Fitzgerald Ahem, Jordan Kriston, and Mike Tyus balanced precariously on a small table in On the Nature of Things. The alluring sounds of a choral Vivaldi work provided a striking mood for this exploration of longing, passion, control, and power. The sense that one or more of the dancers might at any time fall off generated even more tension, as the dancers exhibit breathtaking control in their partnering. It’s classic Pilobolus, a good introduction for new viewers.
The second piece combined two other elements the company is known for: humor and shadow dancing. Wednesday Morning, 11:45 found Ahem on stage right puttering amidst a messy array of clutter reminiscent of a cramped bachelor pad. Our attention was on a box, and when he opened it, a shadow screen on stage left came to life giving the audience a view of the box’s contents—a shy, ostrich-like creature. When another one was added to the box, a hilarious mating dance ensued culminating with the laying of an egg, which became Ahem’s breakfast. Composer Alex Dezen collaborated with the company for a swingin’ mix of Caribbean and jazz beats.
Thresh/Hold, created with Venezuelan choreographer Javier De Frutos, delivered the most evocative range. Ominous music, dancers in post-apocalyptic costumes, and a moving door built a sense of mystery. A sorrowful Kriston sat in front of the door, as Ahem slithered through the frame. She cradled his head as he moved through the door, then reversed to go back in, setting up the theme of time.
The remaining dancers (Benjamin Coalter, Derion Loman, and Tyus) burst through the door to begin an exciting segment of jumps, lifts, and rolls. The door spun, lit up, and glided across the stage as the dancers leaped through with impeccable timing and risk. Kriston and Ahem attempted to connect, but the other three kept them apart. Whenever they did come together, he reacted differently to her, which caused obvious heartbreak. Lighting shifted between cool and warm tones, while music traveled between thrumming bass and music box-style tones. The haunting work conjured images of various sci-fi media portraying time and dimensions and delivered excellent abstract storytelling.
Intermission gave a chance for audience participation, as they set up for the most sensational work of the program, [esc], a Houdini-style work developed with Penn & Teller. Four jaw-dropping escape acts left audiences mesmerized. Coalter got locked in a box, Loman found himself in a duffel bag, and Krystal Butler duct-taped Kriston to a chair, but the stripper-style breakout of Ahem and Banks-Sullivan was the best. Chained to each other on a pole and clad only in black shorts, Kiss’ “Shook Me All Night Long” blared as the guys flipped and maneuvered around each other with sensual theatricality.
The final work of the evening, Sweet Purgatory, slowed things down a bit but contained the most dance-like vocabulary. Six dancers in painted unitards start off the work with a quiet tension then transitioned to a calmer demeanor with their usual partnering. It was a bit sleepy, but still a nice piece.
This lineup had all the right elements. It was humorous, mysterious, haunting, and dazzling, and overall just a stellar evening.