Pilobolus at the Annenberg Center

Defying boundaries

Watching Pilobolus dancers take the stage meant immediately having to balance two opposing thoughts — the measurable heft and weight of the human body versus the grace and strength of dancers whose well-muscled torsos are somehow able to cast off the everyday bounds of gravity and do everything but fly.

“[esc]”: A blunt reminder of superhuman skills. (photo by Grant Halverson)

Dancing by the long-running Pilobolus troupe is about fighting the limitations of not only the body, but also the environment and the imagination.

The themes of the program were set out in four videos studded between the dance numbers, starting with Pilobolus is a fungus, in which x-ray images of a person swallowing and fungal growth set up the complicated animal nature of the human body. This was followed by Wind, a clever and funny animation that emphasized how the environment shapes movement; Cirrus, a masterfully edited piece that examined how mundane movements — such as leaving the house — can, when repeated and amplified, create weird points of beauty; and Danielle, in which we observe a young woman’s face digitally transform from childhood to old age, letting us see how small details — even in stasis — change everything.

The first and last dances of the program best exemplified these themes. In On the Nature of Things, three dancers, two of whom were carried, inert, onto the stage, performed on an impossibly small platform the size of a kitchen table. Weaving about one another, jockeying for position, and sometimes escaping, the three worked with the limitations of their environment, creating emotional triptychs of attraction and control.

Sweet Purgatory, the final piece, offered the dancers a more traditional stage, with the theme of repetition providing a kaleidoscope of extraordinary balance, precision, and strength as the dancers tried to break from their circles of three again and again, sharing not only the physical exuberance of their changing patterns but also an emotional heft.

The only misstep in the program was a number called [esc], narrated and choreographed by the magic team of Penn and Teller, in which six dancers were locked into Houdini-like boxes, duct-taped onto chairs, sandwiched into a traveling bag, and chained and locked onto a 13-foot stripper pole. Coming after the intermission, the piece highlighted the strength, agility, and showmanship of the dancers, but given the strength of their earlier performances, we already knew that they could perform superhuman feats without this blunt reminder.

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