Now in its fifth decade, Pilobolus Dance Theatre, continues to delight audiences with its athleticism, imagination and humor. The company’s collaborations with artists outside the dance world add even broader appeal to this beloved group.
This year’s program for the American Dance Festival offers two commissioned collaborative premieres.
The first is “esc,” an abbreviation for “escape,” referring to the classic illusion made famous by Houdini. Here, comedy magicians Penn & Teller are the collaborators on four separate escapes.
With Penn Jillette piped in as narrator, the Las Vegas-style illusions include impressive displays of contortion and muscle control as dancers are sealed in a box, stuffed in a duffle bag and chained to pole. The illusions are entertaining, but the segment seems to be a slight use of Pilobolus’ talent.
That talent is more obvious in the second premiere, “Licks,” a collaboration with choreographers Trish Sie and Renée Jaworski. To music by Nortec Collective, a Mexico-based electronica group, six dancers manipulate various lengths of rope. Sometimes they seem like cowboys lassoing calves, sometimes like gangs on a rumble, sometimes like spiders creating webs.
With multicolored lighting giving the fast-moving ropes an eerie glow, the piece has energy and sensuality, although the few original ideas get stretched thin.
The third “new” segment is the return of 2011’s “All Is Not Lost,” the brilliant, joyful collaboration with the band OK Go and Trish Sie. The dancers perform on a Plexiglas surface with a video camera underneath, capturing kaleidoscope perspectives and projecting them on a giant screen. Illusions of swimming, climbing and floating are doubly enjoyable because the creation and results are viewed side by side.
Dramatic contrast comes with two early works. “Molly’s Not Dead” (1978) finds six dancers combining into alternatively funny and haunting creatures, many defying logistics of balance. “Ocellus” (1972) rolls four nearly nude male dancers into one living organism that slowly grows and divides like the fungus the group is named for.
In what appears to be the new program structure, short videos are shown in between pieces, allowing time for elaborate setups. This year’s are more accessible than last year’s, but bringing up the auditorium lights during the videos leads to disruptive audience chatter and disconnection to the performances.