Pilobolus At The Joyce
Pilobolus is in residence at The Joyce, and they are literally tearing up the floor. With ropes and chains. And duct tape. And mirrors. Seldom in more than g-strings. Have your attention now? Well, that is clearly their point.
Not that attention-getting is a problem for the 42-year-old troupe: of all the world-class companies that cycle through The Joyce each year, only Pilobolus enjoys a run of almost a month.
They’ve performed at the Oscars, Olympics and TED talks, as well as on "Oprah," "David Letterman" and "Sesame Street." They’ve received several prestigious awards and collaborated with some of the world’s most celebrated artists and icons, now including master magicians Penn and Teller.
Having such pop-culture cred undoubtedly contributed to the lively atmosphere at the Joyce opening Tuesday night, which also served as the New York premiere for the new Penn and Teller work. In terms of sheer entertainment value, the show does not disappoint.
In terms of artistic value, however, at least Program A (one of two alternating programs this season) suggests that the company’s newer works tend to rely more on gimmicks, technology and shock value than they do on actual dance -- a trend that is cause for concern.
"[esc]" doesn’t even pretend to be a conventional dance performance. True to its name, it is more of an escape act in which sexy, scantily clad dancers channel Houdini, wriggling and writhing their way out of various forms of bondage.
For instance, a female dancer (Jordan Kriston) is duct-taped to a chair with a plastic bag over her head. This is a shocking sight in itself, but the real spectacle is the exertion she uses to struggle free (which naturally causes her blouse to rip off).
In another eye-popping scene, two male dancers (Matt del Rosario and Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern), sporting nothing but g-strings and raging six-packs, are chained together on a 13-foot stripper pole. Defying gravity, they hoist themselves over and around the pole to unchain themselves. Suddenly, I was wondering if the AC had stopped working.
Then there was the guy (Jun Kuribayashi) who was tied with ropes into a human pretzel and zipped inside a carry-on size duffle bag (the theme was TSA security, complete with a tub of confiscated box cutters). Amazingly, he manages to squirm across the stage inside the duffle, get hold of a box cutter and slash himself out of the bag and bonds.
All the while, the big, boisterous Penn narrated the action (he was there in person with Teller just for the opening), concluding the number with a gravelly, "I’m Penn Jillette, and this is Teller. And we did jack sh*t!"
His point was that credit belonged to the dancers, who interpreted escape art as only dancers could. Their physical prowess opened new doors for magic, and magic provided a new stage for showcasing their own art.
Still, it was less magic in a dance show than it was dance in a magic show -- one of the spectacular, Las Vegas variety for which Penn and Teller are known. While this is surely a great way to sell tickets and appeal to wider audiences, such works should not eclipse ones that have dance at their core. Unfortunately, they did.
The rest of the program includes only two pieces that are dance-centric, "Ocellus" and "Day Two," which were choreographed in 1972 and 1980, respectively. The other two, "Automaton" (2012) and "All Is Not Lost" (2011), make dance a sidebar to their central gimmicks.
In "Automaton," created with the Belgian-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the gimmick is large, rectangular mirrors that the dancers move around the stage. According to a repertory note, the mirrors are intended to "allow us to see multiple angles at the same time," while the music and movement prompt us to "question the difference between human and machine."
Described as "somewhere between Tron and Bladerunner," "Automaton" is billed as "a journey through a time that seems yet to come." But the mere reference to these popular films (not to mention the robotic movements that Michael Jackson made popular decades ago) suggests this is a work that’s actually late to the party.
While there are some beautiful moments when the dancers engage in very human interactions with each other and their reflections, the overall effect is more copycat than cutting-edge.
"All Is Not Lost" also plays with multiple perspectives, but in a more chipper tone set by the music of OK Go. Dancers play on a clear glass platform, while a video camera beneath them simultaneously projects onto an adjacent screen. The result is a cheery human kaleidoscope and the dancers are clearly having fun. The audience is, too -- it’s a great party trick -- but after a few minutes, I felt like I was watching an uncut iPad commercial.
With all these newfangled tricks, the pure dance presented in the two older works feels both refreshing and fresh. Two of Pilobolus’ most iconic works, both the male quartet "Ocellus" and the ensemble piece "Day 2" are stripped down to their bare essentials: bodies, virtually naked, against a black backdrop. Through intense physicality and ingenious partnering, these works are shrines to the power of the human body and the creativity of the human mind.
To conclude, dance must evolve, like any other art form, and Pilobolus deserves credit for its great efforts to expand the horizons of dance through innovative, cross-disciplinary collaborations. But the troupe ought to take care that its collaborations serve to enrich dance, and not cheapen it. For no matter how many new tools they have at their disposal, the current production shows that the dancers themselves are still the greatest.