Pilobolus is an innovative dance company based in Connecticut who I’m delighted to say will be performing here as part of the Virginia Arts Festival.
Although it is a dance company, Pilobolus truly goes way beyond movement.
The company (whose name is actually a type of fungus that one of the co-founders was studying in his father’s science lab) began in 1971. The company has experienced amazing growth, and now has three formidable divisions: Pilobolus Dance Theatre, the Pilobolus Institute, and the Pilobolus Creative Division.
The company focuses strongly on creativity and collaboration; their works are fresh and incredibly unique. Their style is fascinating and enthralling. Renée Jaworski, the company’s Artistic Associate and Rehearsal Director, spoke with me about the company, and shared some experiences from her ten years with Pilobolus.
I guess I could start by talking about the company’s three entities: the Dance Theatre, the Institute, and the Creative Services. Could you explain a little more about them, and what each of those [does]?
Sure. Well there’s the touring company, which is the company that is coming down to Virginia. That consists of seven members. At any given time we have no more that six people on the stage, but we like to have seven people in the company just in case there’s an injury. So there are seven members and they take care of the majority of the touring and the creative output for the year. We make three new works a year. So that’s P-7; their nickname is P-7 because there are seven people.
Creative Services is kind of a branch that we call Creative Services because it’s more of a gig-based thing that we’re hired out by companies to come and either do commercials, or benefits, or print work. You know it’s… not concert dance as much as it is using our bodies to create other stuff. Creative Services is the part of the company that did the Hyundai commercial and the Oscars. Generally what we do is we hire either P-7 dancers and/or veteran dancers that have worked with the company for a long time to go and do these special projects.
Out of that, we’ve also created another company, using a blend between the work that we do for creative services which is very popular right now. When people think of Pilobolus they think of the Oscars and Oprah, and all of our shadow work is very popular. And we’ve mixed that with our kind of older, more traditional, if Pilobolus is traditional at all (laughing), kind of work. Dance work. And we made a show called “Shadowland.” It’s an evening length piece that is touring in Europe and Asia. We just got back from Russia. And that was a collaboration with Steve Banks. And you’re actually going to see part of that; you’re going to see an excerpt of that on the Virginia Beach program called “DOG-ID.”
The Institute… well, Pilobolus from day one, considered themselves to be teaching. One of the reasons that Pilobolus started was because a dance teacher at Dartmouth had a bunch of guys in her class and she didn’t know what to do with them, and that was Alison Chase. She was a founding member. So when these guys came into class, she wasn’t really sure… she didn’t want to scare them away and say “Okay start doing tendus and pliés.”
So she started moving with them, kind of using the movement that they already knew how to do, and trying to make something interesting out of that movement. And that’s basically the way our classes are run now. We ask people to come, from all different backgrounds, you don’t have to be a dancer to come take our classes. The Institute does programs and community projects where people come from all over from many different backgrounds and we bring them together some have movement experience, some don’t. And we’ll pull them together and we’ll make a piece with them. And then it will be performed on a Pilobolus program, or on a free-standing program of it’s own. The Institute is a mixture of Master Classes that are done on the road, and larger projects that we do of teaching and workshops. We have a great summer camp that we do up here in Connecticut. It’s been running for quite some time now. We have a kids’ camp, that I think is in its 6th or 7th year, that we do with students who are…3rd grade through 6th grade. And we also have our adult camps.
So every sector of Pilobolus is really kind of busy…
It sounds like it! It’s wonderful…that you have so much going on.
It is great. It keeps everybody’s juices flowing.
I’m familiar with the structure of ballet companies, in that they have Artistic Directors, principals, soloists, etc. Does the Pilobolus Dance Theatre have a structure? Not necessarily like that, but I saw that you guys have Dance Captains…
Yeah, we have a structure… I think we probably made up our structure. But we do have some loose form of a structure. It’s necessary for the sake of protocol, to have a last word; so, somebody who is in charge. When they’re out on the road, it’s the Dance Captain. When we are in the studio, it’s the Artistic Director. Whoever may be in the studio at that time. For overall decisions for the company, company-wide, it’s the Executive Director. So we do have that kind of structure, but… Pilobolus was started with the thought that everybody was on equal ground.
And everybody collaborated with each other. So all of the founding members, they were running this thing before there was an Executive Director. Before they even thought of a Dance Captain. They were just doing it, and working with each other, and winging it the whole time. But what that did was it allowed everybody to speak freely, to throw ideas around, to work together collaboratively. And we like that to be the case now. So even though…our business is bigger, and there are more things that are expected of us, and we have more people to answer to, we still like to have that kind of creative even playing field. So everybody’s throwing ideas out. Everybody’s got, as much as possible, room to be a creative force in this company as well as kind of understand what the company’s running at large, and put in their two cents and affect the company.
Especially as time goes on, the Artistic Directors…have been around for 40 years. Our 40th year anniversary is coming up. And that’s a long time for a dance company. And I’m like, so really lucky to be here now, because I get to see them think about what’s going on for the future, beyond them. And there’s a lot of different takes on how it could go. I mean, the future is a big unknown right now, so we’re really experimenting with many different ways, like bringing collaborators in, outside choreographers in to collaborate with the artistic directors, or you know in some cases, veteran dancers; me for instance, and my partner Matt Kent, who’s also a veteran dancer and kind of like stopped touring but still works for the company. We are in the studio right now working on a project that we’re collaborating with Dan Zanes, who is a musician. A family music musician. So that’s one way. Another way is we… have something called the International Collaborators’ Project, and that’s where we invite people, choreographers, from all over the world to come in and choreograph with an artistic director. So we’ve worked with Inbal Pinto, and Avshalom Pollak on a piece called “Rushes.” We’re looking at other collaborations for next year which I’m not going to say because we haven’t released them yet…
[We both laughed.]
But we’ve got quite a few coming up…from different places around the world. So we’re not really sure what the future looks like, but we’re really exploring different pathways to see what Pilobolus looks like 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 40 years from now…
Yeah, it is really exciting. And it’s exciting to think that this is a possibility…that this could last beyond the current artistic directors. It’s a neat organism. And it should last beyond because it is an entity on its own.
So you’re the Artistic [Associate], and Rehearsal Director…
I am the Rehearsal Director and Artistic Associate… by contract.
So what is an average workday like for you then…or workweek…
[Laughed] For me there is no average workday! Let’s see… today is going to be completely different from tomorrow. Let me explain… so today, I’m in the office, and I’m doing interviews…
I’m talking to people about the organization and the company. I’m making rehearsal schedules. I’m talking to people about tour, programming…I’m dealing with some PCS [Pilobolus Creative Services] projects that are coming up, and the logistics that have to happen. So that’s my today.
Tomorrow, I’ll be in the studio, and I’ll be the creative director on a PCS project that’s coming up.
Any given day, I will be teaching a workshop, somewhere, anywhere… I do inter-district projects and community projects. So I’m choreographing on dancers and non-dancers alike. I’m in the studio choreographing, like I said, a new piece with my partner Matt Kent. So there really is no, um…you can’t really put my role into a box, and that’s the way it is for everybody in this company. We all kind of like, just do what we want to do, as long as it’s for the better of the company. As long as we’re moving things along.
Do you still perform at all?
I do. Yep.
How were you first introduced to the company?
Well, before I worked with Pilobolus, I worked with Momix for 6 years. And Momix was started by Moses Pendleton, who was also a founding member of Pilobolus. In the early 80’s, I think 1980, to be exact, he left Pilobolus to go make Momix. So I worked with him, and was kind of introduced to this style of working through him. So after 6 years of working with him, I auditioned for Pilobolus…and started working with them in 2000.
It seems like, you know, what I’ve read too, is that a lot of the Pilobolus work comes from improvisation…
So what’s the choreographic process like? Does it start with just, everybody kind of improvising? Or does the choreographer have an idea that they throw at the dancers to run with?
Most of the time we do start with improvisation. We’ll go into a room, and whether or not we have an idea beforehand is irrelevant. The process always starts with improvisation. For instance, when we made “Shadowland,” the evening length production, we had kind of a story in mind. We were working with a writer, Steve Banks, who is one of the head writers for Spongebob Squarepants.
Yeah… so we were meeting with him, and kind of like throwing storyline ideas and plot ideas around with him. So we had an idea of what we were doing when we got in there, but then when we got in there we said, “Okay, let’s improvise. Let’s play around with some stuff.” And it’s always so much fun to kind of do that, because then even the people who start to come in with the ideas see things that if we had come in saying “You’re going to do A, B, and C,” we wouldn’t have seen.
Do you know what I mean?
Keeping it open, there can be free associations happening. So we’re not nailing anybody’s brain down to one idea. We’re saying, “What do we have? Let’s stir this all together and see how it fits into the structure, or the story, or the music that we’ve come in with.”
How do the dancers train? Do they have daily classes?
We don’t have a daily class. The dancers kind of have an hour to warm up on their own and they can do whatever training they feel warms their body and their mind up. We like to make sure that the dancers’ brains are being trained to think creatively and to improvise on the spot and collaborate, and be open and work with each other. So a lot of the training ends up being more philosophical and more mental training than it is physical training. The physical training happens just by doing the work, doing the rep. When dancers come in, probably they’re learning 5 to 6 rep pieces right away. So they’re getting years of Pilobolus movement that was taken from all over the map; martial arts, modern dance, theatre, mime, (well, maybe not mime so much), clowning…you know, any movement style that you can think of is imbedded in years of Pilobolean thought, and has been passed on. So that training happens. But you know, a lot of it is in the creative process. When you’re creating new work, with people who have been there for a few years, so they’re going to teach new people movement. If we have somebody who trained in breakdancing, they’re going to be teaching other dancers new things. The people who trained in ballet are going to be learning from the people who trained in breakdancing; and the people trained in ballet are going to be teaching also…So there’s like a constant conversation going on, that brings people together in a different way, and has them collaborate in a different way.
What is your favorite Pilobolus piece that you’ve performed?
I would say that my favorite is a piece called “Untitled,” actually. And it was choreographed in 1976, I think? And the reason I love this piece is because it is like, what I consider a perfect melding of abstract movement and theatre. The movement is the theatre, and the theatre is the movement, and you cannot tell which one is which. It’s all melded together so perfectly. And there’s so much going on; there’s so much rich imagery, and there’s so much rich movement, and partnering, and storyline. It’s really a beautiful work. I think it’s a classic Pilobolus piece.
Do they re-run certain pieces? Are they pulled from kind of an inventory of choreography when you guys tour?
Yep. I think that the oldest piece that we have in rep right now is from 1971. On the program in Virginia, there’s a piece from 1974, called“ Pseudopodia.” “Day Two” is from 1981, which is also in the program in Virginia. And then you’ve got “DOG-ID,” which is the “Shadow” piece, which is from ’09. So you’ve got a good span of years.
That’s great because some companies only perform a piece for one run…
Well, there are those [laughed]…You know, we make three new works a year, so some get legs and last in our rep forever. “Day Two” is a classic. That’s always in rep. From the minute that it went up on the stage it’s been in rep; I think there was maybe one or two years that we didn’t have it in rep. But then there are others… sometimes we’ll do a piece and it doesn’t really fly that well. So we’ll do it for a year or two, and then we’ll put it on a shelf and maybe we’ll bring it out and we’ll work on it again. Sometimes we don’t. But that’s okay. What’s important to us is that we continue making things… we continue pushing our own envelope and see what innovations we can come up with from year to year. If we make a lasting work, then that’s great. But not everything can stay in rep all the time. We kinda have to make our choices.
Right, I was going to say, there’s only so much time to perform…[laughed]
Exactly. [laughed] And we lose dancers. When we lose dancers, it’s like weeks of training to learn new rep, so then our rep list kind of drops back a little bit.
So when you’re not rehearsing, performing, or teaching, where would we find you?
Like personally? I’m at home with my husband, my daughter, my dog and cat. Gardening, making a dress, knitting…Yeah, I’m kind of like a homebody when I’m not out and about in the world.
But, I go to Egypt on Friday, so there’s also that.
Oh that’s exciting, have you been there before?
I’ve never been to Egypt before, no. It should be very neat. We’re performing in front of the Pyramids.
This is a PCS project. So we are going and performing at a party that is being held by a mobile telephone company out of Dubai.
Wow. That is going to be thrilling.
Yeah, it’s really neat. So we’ve been in the studio for a week, creating a custom designed work for them.
This interview was published on AltDaily in May of 2010.