Collaboration key to shadowy magic of Pilobolus

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The Philobolus dance company opened the Des Moines Performing Arts dance season Tuesday, Nov. 10 with a number of modern dance pieces. Photo courtesy Philobolus

The Des Moines Performing Arts center opened its sixth dance season Tuesday, Nov. 10 with a series of pieces by Pilobolus, a dance company described as “an internationally acclaimed collective, renowned for its unique, diverse collaborations that ignore preconceived barriers between creative disciplines.”

Pilobolus was founded in 1971 by a group of Dartmouth College students with no training in dance.

“We’re all born dancers,” said Matt Kent, associate artistic director of Pilobolus, “and then someone tells us we aren’t good or something.”

Kent is a 19-year member of Pilobolus, having studied music prior to joining the company in 1996. He believes the legacy of Pilobolus is collaboration and innovation.

“It’s not one person’s idea,” he said. Instead, the dancers “create something that isn’t all mapped out” and then “shape it together.” He said Pilobolus is a diverse group of people who look differently, speak differently and celebrate individuality while finding out what they can do together and working toward that common goal.

“It’s the love of movement” that ties the troupe together, he said. He compared their process to that of a jazz quartet. This unique culture of collaboration is reflected in the program as well, in which many names are listed after “created by.”

“I’m less interested in working with technicians,” Kent said. “I’m more interested in working with someone who has a voice and wants to put that voice to a collaborative use.”

Pilobolus makes its home in Washington Depot, Conn., a location currently without cell phone service.

“I’m actually kind of sad about the cell service,” While it’s big news that cell phone service is soon coming to their location, Kent said he feels their relative isolation, including the lack of phone service, “informs so much of what we end up doing.”

In discussing the group’s performances for the evening, Kent said the inspirations were as diverse as the cast and their performances.

Kent said the opening piece, “On the Nature of Things,” began with the question, “What if we constrain the dancers’ movements?” The piece is performed on a small, intimate, dinner-for-2-sized table with the entire trio at times occupying the tiny tabletop. Through their talents, the table becomes a much larger space as they leverage the entire sphere of space around the table.

“Wednesday Morning, 11:45” is a dance exploring the interaction between a dancer downstage of the screen and the shadow work for which Pilobolus is so famous—those amazing, morphing shadow shapes made by the dancers.

“Automaton” came from the questions, “Where does consciousness exist?” and “What the heck does it mean to be human?”

But Kent didn’t want to speak too much about these pieces or the show’s other planned performances.

“I don’t want to sully your own interpretations,” he said to those attending Tuesday’s pre-performance dance talk.

After the performance, four dancers introduced themselves and responded to audience questions. Benjamin Coalter, a dancer from West Virginia, spoke about his three-day audition and the collaborative process.

All the dancers agreed that “you have to trust each other,” and “you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable.” Coalter spoke of doing a movement and then being asked, “Can you do that backwards?” or “Can you do that rotating?” He said there is a lot of learning on the job, surprising his listeners with the hard-to-believe fact, given the group’s repertoire, that he didn’t know how to do flips prior to joining Pilobolus.

Dance Captain Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern said the dancers work out for eight to 10 hours a day and five to six days a week. And even though they are in the best shape of their lives, Ahern said, “We do wake up with aches and pains.” All the dancers nodded in agreement.

Coalter said some pieces are more cardiovascular, while others have lots of lifts or other physical requirements. When the program changes, they are all really sore the next day, he said.

With so many hours dedicated to working out, rehearsing and listening to the music over and over to gain an intimate knowledge of it, the question of balance between work and the rest of one’s life came up. The dancers all agreed balance is important and it’s very easy to get pulled into focusing entirely on dance, but that marriage, kids, hobbies and other activities outside of dance not only happen but are quite necessary.

They all may be “born dancers,” as Kent said, but it takes an incredible amount of discipline, work, dedication and collaboration to be a Pilobolus dancer.

The next performance in the Des Moines Performing Arts dance series will be Jessica Lang Dance, scheduled for Feb. 11.

Philobolus dancers, from left, Darion Loman, Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern, Krystal Butler and Benjamin Coalter answered audience questions after their Tuesday night performance.
Philobolus dancers, from left, Darion Loman, Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern, Krystal Butler and Benjamin Coalter answered audience questions after their Tuesday night performance.

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