Published in Asheville Scene, Oct. 1, 2021.
It began with a trio of unlikely artists: an English literature major with a knack for cross-country skiing, a competitive fencer majoring in philosophy science, and a pre-med student with a penchant for pole vaulting.
These strangers, undergraduate students at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, met purely by chance. Looking for an easy way to fulfill a required physical education credit, they had each enrolled in the same dance class, despite having little to no experience in the performing arts.
Terrified by the idea of dancing alone in front of their peers, the three students — Moses Pendleton, Jonathan Wolken and Steve Johnson — formed their own group, clinging to one another for both moral and physical support. And, in doing so, they created something truly unique.
“I may be heading for medical school in a year or two,” proclaimed a young Johnson, appearing in black-and-white in a vintage 1971 video interview. The interview, uploaded in 2021 to their future company’s YouTube page as an homage to its origins, is followed by a recording of the trio’s very first piece of choreography, developed in the Dartmouth dance class. In the performance, the men intertwine their bodies and move together as a single unit, forming new, fantasylike creatures in gravity-defying arrangements. This original piece was titled “Pilobolus” — and a legacy of movement and magic was born.
Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, Pilobolus — a college dance project-turned-internationally renowned movement company — is bringing its past into the present for its “BIG FIVE-OH!” tour, premiering to the world right here in Asheville. Pairing reimagined hits from its repertoire with never-before-seen material, the anniversary production debuts at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts at 8 p.m. Oct. 8, with two encore performances.
Ranging from the vintage and visionary to the fresh and electrifying, “BIG FIVE-OH!” includes the high-voltage 2004 hit “Megawatt,” dedicated in this tour to the memory of Wolken, who created this work in his last decade of life. For this performance, “Megawatt” has been updated to expand on its unfettered exuberance of life and casts dancers in gender roles that gently subvert stereotypes.
One of the earlier pieces in this anniversary performance, “Shizen” which translates to “nature” in Japanese, premiered on Broadway in 1978. In this classic work, dancers embody the forces and scenes of nature in a moving meditation on the nearly naked human form. Choreographed by Pendleton and Alison Chase, the piece exemplifies Pilobolus’s signature partnering technique — pioneered by the original trio — to create confounding, eye-pleasing images that are greater than the sum of their parts. Bringing “Shizen” into the 21st century, performers use handheld projectors to re-skin the dancers’ bodies in imagery that references the natural world and our relationship to it.
Perhaps best known for its innovation of physical shadow theatre, Pilobolus has inspired countless other artists to explore shadow-play as a new medium of expression. In “BIG FIVE-OH!,” the company offers a new take on this concept, revealing the technique to the audience by altering the perspectives of the performance, swiveling the dancers from behind the shadow screen to in front of it.
Be among the first to see this world premiere performance — which includes these pieces and more — and join the company as it celebrates 50 wild years of innovation.
IF YOU GO
What: Pilobolus: “BIG FIVE-OH!”
Where: Wortham Center for the Performing Arts, 18 Biltmore Ave., downtown
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 8 and Oct. 9; 3 p.m. Oct. 10
Tickets: $55 – Get Tickets
Note: This production includes partial nudity.