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Pilobolus - Beyond the Limits: Choreographing Collectively

Using a collaborative creative process Pilobolus has changed the very idea of what it means to create dance. Their philosophy of group thinking and ability to create shapes and moves that almost defy the human body, makes them one of the most unique dance makers in the world. How do they do it?


ICONS spoke with Pilobolus’ artists about their creative process, innovative approach, and use of choreography in community building efforts, during one of their recent performances at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia.


The Interview participants were Renee Jaworski, Artistic Director;

Antoine Banks-Sullivan, Dancer and Dance Captain; Heather Favretto, Dancer; and Jacob Warren, Dancer.



Dance ICONS: Pilobolus began their International Collaborators Project in 2007. Since then you've worked with musicians, filmmakers, puppeteers, jugglers, etc. How do you go about choosing who to collaborate with?


Pilobolus: We’re pretty inquisitive by nature, all of us, so we keep our eyes and ears open. When people are doing something that is interesting, especially if it has a different perspective than ours, we approach them. It starts with a conversation about what they’re making and how, what might be interesting to make together, and if we go beyond that, then we invite them to play with us in the studio. If there is chemistry, then we begin a project.


We just completed one of our dream collaborations with banjo players Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. Fleck has taken the banjo off the porch and demonstrated that it is a respectable concert instrument, influencing the genre and changing the world of music. We like working with people like these, pioneers, who aren’t stuck in any particular way of thinking, people who are open to our craziness!

ICONS: You also have a unique way of choreographing collaboratively with each other. Is there usually an end goal in mind before beginning the choreography? Or is what we see on stage a result of the process?


Pilobolus: The dancers begin each choreographic process with a nice, easy improv, with the directors and sometimes our collaborators in the room. But before we do this we have had months of conversation dreaming up what this piece is going to look like, what we want the audience to walk away with, but not necessarily the story line or any exact details. While the dancers improvise, the directors guide them towards certain objectives and edit out the things that may not belong. We refer to each of our pieces as “worlds,” and we are all working together to create the details of each world, decorating it and filling it with things that make sense, so that we all feel like we are living within the same creation.


ICONS: What are some of the challenges that come along with this process?


Pilobolus: You have to learn to let go of your insecurities really quickly in order to become part of the creative process. About 95% of the material that we come up with will get edited out, and that can hurt! But you have to let it go and allow the group to move forward. The act of letting go becomes an art form in itself.


Everybody gets very invested in the creation of the work and has their own sense of ownership, so we all feel open to discuss our ideas freely. Sometimes that means making changes to the choreography. We might try out a new ending and see how it feels, see how the audience reacts, and then discuss and decide. It’s our job as performers to make the changes feel good, even if we feel attached to the older version, and sometimes getting to that place can take weeks. But as time goes on, you get better and better at falling in love with the idea of change.


ICONS: Pilobolus has an educational program that includes summer intensives for kids and adults. Why is it important to teach this collaborative group-based creative process to dancers and non-dancers?


Pilobolus: Community building and group thinking are really what we do, and dance - the human body - is just our voice to get that point across. It’s really what the world needs right now and has needed for a long time. If we can teach that and employ that all over the world, and watch people have fun doing it and create something delightful in the process, then it doesn’t feel like work -- it’s just people coming together and doing stuff -- together.


We spend time in inner city elementary schools, corporations, and our new project called Connecting with Balance allows us to spend time with the elderly. It’s amazing to see people become so empowered at the idea of making something together, or to get up and laugh and jump around, or even just to touch each other. As we are developing as a society we are losing the human touch, our sense of connectivity. When we teach our workshops in the corporate world, for example, and the CEO has to weight-share with the secretary or the janitor, it puts everyone on the same plane of existence. What we are doing reminds people that we are all human and we are all vulnerable.


ICONS: Your shadow dances are fascinating because the audience can’t see any faces, so they have to use their imagination and their own emotions to fill in the blanks. The notion of active audience participation seems to be prevalent in all of the performances. How to you go about achieving that in the pieces where the dancers are seen on stage?


Pilobolus: There is a genuine quality to everything that we do; we are 100% committed to the characters we are portraying. The directors are really good at helping the dancers fully understand the emotions we are being asked to express through movement; we even feel our bodies go through biochemical changes when we are experiencing these emotions. Just like in real life. We find a place from within, a memory for example, that allows us to actually feel what it is that makes us giggle, versus a presentation of what “happy” should look like. We make sure that we are not imitating things we have seen, but allowing ourselves to actually feel something genuine that the audience can relate to.


ICONS: There are equal amounts of deep emotional pieces and light-hearted comedies in your repertoire. While always impressive, some works are cartoony, and others are dark and serious. What makes Pilobolus Pilobolus? What elements of the company's identity appear in all of your works?


Pilobolus: That’s a tough question because Pilobolus isn’t really any one thing (laughs). What makes us who we are is our ability to constantly regenerate. We are the ability to change and adapt and be different. Through our working collaboration we make things that no single person could ever make, creations that a single mind couldn’t come up with alone. We are a philosophy, a hive mentality. No one piece is ever more real than the last one, each is full-on creativity; fully genuine and fully collaborative.

ICONS: Pilobolus has been around for over 4 decades. In an ever-changing world, how has the company adapted to the shifts in culture and technology?


Pilobolus: For the last 45 years we haven’t put self-imposed limits on what we would try. If it’s been done before we don’t want to do it. Other companies have been following our lead in terms of weight-sharing and partnering, and we are constantly looking for what is innovative and new to us now. Over 20 years ago people were saying that what we were doing was “not dance,” and now it is “dance.” Those terms change but we haven’t. We have fun collaborating with different artists, using new and varied media and shifting our perspectives to stay on forefront of creative work.


ICONS: Does Pilobolus have any new works in the making that we can look forward to?


Pilobolus: We are always working on something. There is talk of creating a new full-length work, very different from Shadowland, as well as some more short-form works and new collaborations.




More about Pilobolus:


Established in 1971, Pilobolus works to build relationships across different art forms and disciplines via the International Collaborators Project, founded in 2007. They also reach out to the non-professional community through their educational programs and workshops where they employ their group-based collaborative creative process to bring people together in body and mind. Through their creative services, they have worked with a wide range of businesses and individuals for design, advertising and performance projects around the world.


Photo credits: Ben McKeown, Grant Halverson, John Kane, Kai Heimberg, Matt Kent, Merwelen van der Merwe, Nadirah Zakariya, and Robert Whitman.


Interview credit: Christina Lindenmuth; Editor: Camilla Acquista, Dance ICONS, Inc., © 2017