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How Dance Company Pilobolus Harnesses Creativity From Unlikely Sources

A car commercial led to Pilobolus’s acclaimed show Shadowland–and that’s just the beginning of the troupe’s unique creative synergy.

How Dance Company Pilobolus Harnesses Creativity From Unlikely Sources
[Photo: Ian Douglas]

Backstage at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, a young woman in a white nighty lies quietly on the floor behind a giant screen. The lights dim as a soft piano tune plays on the theater’s speakers and a large, honey colored disk of light descends slowly upon the woman to reveal her sharp silhouette against the screen–and also a black floor littered with what looks like an explosion of confetti.

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The contemporary dance troupe Pilobolus is doing a run-through of a scene from their acclaimed show Shadowland, which made its North American debut after a six-year run across Europe, and the seemingly haphazard spread of stage markings is an interesting parallel to the company itself.

“It’s often making order out of chaos,” says Itamar Kubovy, executive director of Pilobolus. “The collaborative contract in our world really involves a group of people who commit to being in the studio for a period of time and to come out with something they can put on stage–we don’t really know much more than that when we enter. There really are no limits to what your role can become in this kind of desert island choreographic world.”

Itamar KubovyPhoto: Ron Holtz

Shadowland is one such show that emerged from Pilobolus’s repertoire of more than 120 “desert island” works. It’s a coming-of-age story centered on an unnamed heroine who is magically turned into a dog-human hybrid and tumbles her way through dream worlds both fantastic and cruel until she finds her way home. Think Alice in Wonderland meets Cirque Du Soleil with insanely complex shadow puppets–none of which would be possible without that smattering of markings on the stage floor.

“We have very precise positions in relation to six different light sources where we manipulate over 250 props and shape-shift our bodies. If we are merely an inch off, it can translate to a four or five foot difference on our screen,” says Shawn Ahern, dance captain of Pilobolus. “Which, as you can imagine, would drastically change the relationship between, say, an elephant’s trunk and its tail.”

Shawn Ahern

Being in sync on stage is a task in itself, but even off stage Pilobolus’s philosophy of channeling creative inspiration and collaboration across marketing, robotics, prestidigitation, and beyond into dynamic works is a delicate dance all its own. Shadowland, for example, ultimately owes its existence to a car commercial.

Ad agency The Richards Group approached Pilobolus with the idea of forming a Hyundai Santa Fe using only the dancers’ bodies. The dance troupe nailed the commercial, which led to a call from producer Laura Siskin asking Pilobolus to perform at the 79th Academy Awards, which then led to requests worldwide from kings, queens, opera houses, etc. to create shadow plays–sort of mini versions of Shadowland.

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“Suddenly, shadow became a material, as odd as that may sound, that we could actually build stuff out of,” Kubovy says. “We started painting with shadow and bodies and essentially realized that this kind of car commercial had sort of launched and opened up a whole wild area of exploration that we hadn’t really imagined.”

Over time, Pilobolus gained an arsenal of shadow tricks that would be stitched together to form Shadowland. But the show which made its 2009 premiere in Madrid is markedly different from what’s on stage today. Shadowland has been continually workshopped, whether it’s been deciding how and when to split time between being in shadow and not being in shadow or working within the limitations of certain shapes, e.g. a running shadow elephant was just never meant to be.

“Whenever you’re putting something together, there are a lot of different influencers of all of the artistic decisions,” Kubovy says. “We really ran into some unexpected questions as we worked.”

And how did they answer those questions? Collaboration.

“There’s a back and forth dialogue between the directors and the dancers and we’re constantly making suggestions with our bodies and our minds,” Ahern says. “All of the movement is made through improvisation.”

For example, at the end of each show for Shadowland, the dancers perform a customized finale for whatever city they’re in. New York City’s coda featured a blitz through cityscapes and the all too real struggles of the subway.

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“We say, ok she’s going through a subway turnstile: first of all, what does that look like? Can you guys make a subway turnstile with your bodies in shadow? What are the different parts? You need six people for that?” Ahern says. “Then what does the subway look like–what’s the frame of reference? Who’s in the subway? What are the characters? We answer those questions through improvisation.”

Having an open dialogue is, of course, essential to collaboration. But, as Ahern goes on to explain, it’s more about knowing when to fold.

“I think that respect and compromise go a long way. You can’t be precious with your ideas because when there are seven, 10, 15 people in the room that are creative collaborators, your ideas are not always going to be right,” he says. “The thing is you have to put your trust in the group that the most interesting idea will be the group’s consensus.”

Yielding to the group consensus often goes beyond squaring away with fellow dancers or choreographers–at Pilobolus, there very well could concepts from a computer science engineer, or puppeteer to consider as well. One of Pilobolus’s longstanding principles has been collaborating with influencers across a host of disciplines to discover new ways of interpreting how the body moves. Comedians/magicians Penn & Teller, the MIT Distributed Robotics Laboratory, musicians Ok Go, and puppet master Basil Twist are among the few who have teamed up with Pilobolus to create innovative works broadening perspectives on dance.

“We went out and started to look at collaborators who come from fields that were really broadly related to the body and movement but weren’t necessarily choreographers or involved with the world of dance at all,” Kubovy says. “We did that because it always seemed that we were interested in looking at movement from a kind of altered perspective–interested in looking at things from a shifted lens.”

Being able to see the world through such a lens has allowed Pilobolus to explore their field in groundbreaking ways. As Kubovy mentions, it’s about creating a space that’s safe for artistic expression in order to bring works like Shadowland to life.

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“The trick here is not to aim from the beginning with that exploration. Not to aim for immediate application but to look first at what guides your beauty, your humor,” Kubovy says. “I think those ideas tend to then be much richer and more powerful ideas when they do emerge and you do succeed in translating them into whatever medium they ultimately deserve to live in most effectively.”

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.

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