Pilobolus Dance Theater dazzles with fantasy, illusion and gravity-defying feats

Pilobolus - Photo by John Kane

Palace Theatre at Playhouse Square Center
Cleveland, Ohio
May 8, 2010
Reviewed by Steve Sucato

A sold-out Palace Theatre in PlayhouseSquare on Saturday night welcomed back one of the world’s most popular dance companies, Pilobolus Dance Theater, and a hometown hero, company dancer Christopher Whitney.

Long known for their unique gravity-defying movement language and sculptural choreography, the troupe that is the Cirque du Soleil of the dance world, showed just why they are so beloved.

Fantasy, illusion and seemingly impossible feats of dexterity, strength and balance had the appreciative audience applauding at every eye-popping turn in the program.

The hum of cicadas and the flicker of fireflies began the child-like fantasy “Lanterna Magica.”

Set to atmospheric music from composer Jami Sieber and the band Sigur Ros, six dancers costumed as woodland creatures spun a visual tale of imagination, adventure and the supernatural.

Dancers soared above one another in arcing lifts that flowed one after the other. They playfully chased each other about the stage merging into images of an airplane, an ambulance litter and a number of other fanciful contraptions created from their combined bodies.

The work set the tone for the four other works on the program that would showcase the troupe’s adroit dancers and creative brilliance.

Created by SpongeBob SquarePants lead writer Steven Banks and Pilobolus, “Dog Id” is the latest in the troupe’s shadow works made famous by the company’s appearance at the 2007 Oscars.

The hand of a giant poked and tickled a much smaller shadow of a woman behind a large screen. The two characters then engaged in a bit of cartoon editing as the hand seemed to erase the woman’s head, restore it, then rearranged her into the shape of a dog. This delightful bit of visual illusion and whimsy concluded with the hand molding her into a combination of both woman and dog.

The program’s first half concluded with the zany “Rushes” choreographed by Israel’s Inbal Pinto, Avshalom Pollak and Pilobolus’ Robby Barnett.

A group of quirky and somewhat fearful characters seated in chairs fidgeted and bounced around before getting up to horse around like energetic siblings.

Three male dancers including Whitney — who performed in every work on the program — lifted and flipped each other into various shapes as two female dancers skittered about the stage.

The largest of the troupe’s dancers, Whitney did much of the heavy lifting in the ingenious work and garnered applause for his unique upside down gymnastic power moves that showed off his physical strength.

The work climaxed with a precision drill where a dancer carrying another walked atop a shifting path of chairs that was constantly created by other dancers moving the chairs from behind to in front of the pair.

The program’s second half opened with 1997’s “Gnomen,” a work for four men in the classic Pilobolus sculptural movement style that turned the enfolding of bodies into works of art.

The stirring evening concluded with the frenetic “Megawatt” (2004) choreographed by Jonathan Wolken. Set to music by Primus and Radiohead, “Megawatt” began with the dancers on their backs and stomachs wriggling onto the stage. When they got to their feet they lit into a barrage of dancing that looked like a combination of a mosh pit and a fire drill. The work’s high-energy chaos proved a fitting end to a program that ignited and delighted the hearts and imaginations of those in attendance.

This review originally appeared on Cleveland.com, May 9, 2010 and in an edited version in The Plain Dealer, May 11, 2010.  Copyright Steve Sucato

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