Pilobolus: The Pioneers

New Hampshire-born troupe Pilobolus celebrates 45 years on the cutting edge of modern dance

1978 was a big year for modern dance.

After 30 years in New London, Connecticut, in 1978 the seminal American Dance Festival moved to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. In honor of the move — to the city where the festival is still held today — organizers pulled out all the stops. The heavy hitters of modern dance all performed, from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to the companies of Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham. But they saved the best for last. In the final week of the month-long showcase, a young, athletic group of four men and two women took the stage to close the festival and cement their place as the most exciting act in modern dance.

The group was Pilobolus. And, amid a program full of companies with Juilliard credentials and classical pedigrees, they had gotten their start as a handful of jocks in a dance class right here in New Hampshire.

Pilobolus is an incredibly innovative group,” says John Heginbotham, artistic director of the Dartmouth Dance Ensemble. “They did something no one had ever done before” — and they’re still doing it today.

A little more than 45 years ago, Dartmouth athletes Moses Pendleton, Jonathan Wolken and Steve Johnson enrolled in a dance class taught by visiting professor Alison Becker Chase. They knew nothing about dance, and, in a fateful stroke of luck, they had found themselves with an instructor who elected not to teach them. In Chase’s class, students learned about movement and creativity and were instructed to choreograph their own pieces.

What the young athletes lacked in formal dance training, they made up for in physical strength and tongue-in-cheek silliness, and the dance they created put both on display.

The 11-minute performance saw the men moving as a unit and supporting one another’s weight in nearly gravity-defying arrangements. In place of picture-perfect pirouettes, the dancers created shapes made from intertwined bodies. In place of balletic leaps, they threw each other across the stage. The students called their acrobatic number “Pilobolus,” named after a self-propelling fungus that Wolken’s father was studying in his biology lab.

Pilobolus — the dance — had stunned the boys’ professor and inspired the three to trade their fencing sabres and cross-country skis for the dance belts and bare stages of a new sport.

The men graduated in 1971, and, that summer, Pilobolus the dance company was officially born.

After a few early personnel changes — Johnson and another founder, Lee Harris, for instance, left to pursue medical and technological careers — and a move from Hanover to rural Connecticut, the group ultimately settled into a core team of six: Pendleton, Wolken, Chase, 1972 Dartmouth grad Robby Barnett, 1973 grad Michael Tracy and Martha Clarke.

The group’s rise was swift. They spent their first months busily touring around New England, earning buzz by opening for Frank Zappa at Smith College and participating in a student workshop at NYU. By December 29, 1971, Pilobolus had booked their first gig in New York City: a one-night engagement at a Midtown theater called The Space.

A New York Times reporter was in the audience that night, and her review praised the physicality, humor and inventiveness of the nontraditional group, saying, “That they can do so much is with so little is astounding.”

Now Gray Lady-approved, Pilobolus’ popularity exploded. They toured Europe, earned a documentary spot on PBS’ “Dance in America” at just three years old and gave hundreds of performances around the country. By 1978, they had caught the eye of the US State Department.

As part of a cultural exchange program, the government sent Pilobolus on a tour of the Middle East and Asia that fall. Despite concerns about technological divides and clashes over the group’s progressive style and costuming, the tour was a success filled with sold-out shows. Between tourist stops and performances, the group kept a log of their activities, and a week into their tour, they recounted a memorable encounter in the Turkish countryside.

“Outside of Gordion,” they wrote, “we encountered a group of Kurdish gypsies living in a tent village. We exchanged dances, bridging the language barrier with a vocabulary universal to all.”

courtesy photo
The original cast of Pilobolus (L-R): Jonathan Wolken, Alison Chase, Robby Barnett, Moses Pendleton, Martha Clarke, and Michael Tracy

Despite their success across cultures and borders, though, a question plagued the men and women of Pilobolus: Is their work really dance?

The Times reviewer who heralded the group’s 1971 New York show may have been the first person to publicly voice the concerns.

“There were times,” she wrote, “when it seemed they were in danger of confusing athletics with art.”

Watching the group perform — in their early years or today — it’s not hard to see why these questions arise.

Pilobolus’ choreography is fascinated with the body. Dancers arrange and rearrange themselves in contorted shapes, bouncing off of one another and lifting each other in a collaborative tableau that pushes the limits of what bodies in harmony can achieve.

The group’s dances are stunning to observe, but they certainly don’t resemble your local production of “The Nutcracker.” If ballet is based on the study of centuries-old technique, Pilobolus is based simply on the study of the human form.

And, as those close to the group will tell you, it’s no coincidence that such organic work was born of the rugged expanse of New Hampshire’s Upper Valley.

“I think science and the world around us always seemed like a more immediate subject matter to respond to than cultural products or politics,” says Itamar Kubovy, Pilobolus’ executive director. “You get a much realer sense of that when you’re away from culture and cities.”

“It’s not in the tradition of dance as much as it is the tradition of observing the environment and nature, and making images out of those observations.”

Jeffrey Ruoff — a Dartmouth film professor whose documentary, “Still Moving: Pilobolus at Forty,” recounts the group’s return to campus for their 40th anniversary — puts it another way.

“Pilobolus is a ‘liberal arts’ dance company,” he says, “if such a thing exists. They take inspiration from science, music, nature, engineering, psychology, literature — all facets of a liberal arts education.”

That Pilobolus was born at Dartmouth rather than an ivory-tower conservatory isn’t mere trivia; it is central to the group’s ethos.

Kubovy agrees that the spirit of innovation fostered by New Hampshire’s rural Ivy was critical to the formation of Pilobolus’ style.

“Ultimately, the sense of safety is a precondition for focused creative work and risk-taking,” he says. “And I think Dartmouth provided that in spades [and gave] permission for those kinds of experiments to take place.”

Four and a half decades after Pilobolus was born in Dartmouth’s Webster Hall — now home to the special collections library in which the company’s archives are held — creating space for innovation is still at the heart of both the college and its performing arts.

photo by joseph mehling
Members of Pilobolus perform "Hapless Hooligan in 'Still Moving'" at Dartmouth's Hopkins Center for the Arts.

One of those innovations is Dartmouth Football’s Mobile Virtual Player. Developed last year by students in the Thayer School of Engineering, the MVP bot allows players to hone their tackling skills on an opponent that can’t sustain a concussion or a season-ending injury like their teammates could. Though it can’t throw a ball, the bot can do just about anything else, bobbing, weaving and moving across the field just like a real human athlete.

And, at the halftime show of the November 12 game against Brown, the football robot danced.

Rather than darting between football players, in this performance, the bot bobbed and weaved between members of student dance group the Dartmouth Dance Ensemble. The result was an interdisciplinary ode to all things modern.

Ensemble artistic director John Heginbotham says the collaboration, in its own quirky way, is the latest example of the Pilobolean spirit of innovation in campus arts.

Not only does the football-affiliated performance reflect Pilobolus’ founding by athletes, he says, but it also represents of the Dance Ensemble’s commitment to new ideas and, like Pilobolus, a strong athletic style of dance.

The ensemble’s connection to their campus precursor also extends to personnel — their choreographer-in-residence, Rebecca Stenn, is an alumna of Pilobolus partner groups Momix and Pilobolus Too — but the directors say students don’t always know of this rich dance heritage upon joining the ensemble.

“Sadly, most of the students I encounter do not know this is where Pilobolus came from,” Heginbotham says. “We make sure they learn. Within the first week!”

But Dartmouth Dance Ensemble students aren’t the only ones who’ve been surprised to learn of the famed group whose lineage they share.

Shawn Ahern was a sophomore at Keene State College when he first encountered Pilobolus.

The company had been brought in as the college’s artists-in-residence for a semester, and Ahern developed an immediate affinity for the group. He was selected as one of a small group of students to dance alongside the ensemble for a collaborative number and, in 2007, had his first small taste of performing with Pilobolus.

photo by grant halverson
New Hampshire's own Shawn Ahern (left), a graduate of Keene State College, is now Pilobolus' dance captain.

Today, he serves as its dance captain.

“I immediately fell in love” with Pilobolus after that first encounter, Ahern says. “Any time they were near Keene, I would go and see them perform and meet the company members, and they were such fun, loving people.”

He auditioned for Pilobolus at an open call in New York while still in school and, from a pool of hundreds of hopefuls, he was chosen for a full-time position with the group. He joined after graduating from Keene State in 2010 and has been with the company ever since.

For those who knew Ahern growing up in Dublin, his ascent to the Pilobolus position may be as surprising as it is inevitable.

His mother, former ballerina Christina Ahern, owns the Monadnock Academy of Movement Arts in Peterborough, and Shawn says he grew up around the studio — whether as a kid doing homework in the corner or as a dancer in the occasional class. But he never intended to pursue a career in dance.

“I got a scholarship for dance and theatre at Keene State,” he says, “And I thought, ‘OK, yeah, I’ll take this scholarship and then, a year later, switch majors.’”

Instead, he found himself receiving high praise for his dancing, and he stuck with it.

Ahern was engaged in the industrial side of the Monadnock Region growing up as well as its artistic side, and he says that dichotomy was crucial to his success.

“I felt lucky to be a family and a small community in Peterborough that was supporting the arts,” he says, “and I think New Hampshire does that very well. But there’s also this blue-collar element to New Hampshire.

“I worked in steel construction. When I told people I was going to study dance in college, they didn’t even know what that meant,” Ahern says — but they encouraged him anyway.

“There’s this rich support and innocent ignorance about it,” he says, “and that’s kind of how Pilobolus is. Robby Barnett said that Pilobolus takes the blue-collar approach to dance. It’s not some high-brained, intellectual concept about art. We get in a room with people that we like and try to make stuff that is interesting.”

Ahern and Pilobolus have returned to their home state for several shows in the past six years, but Shawn says the most special moments came from the group’s performance at Keene’s Redfern Arts Center in 2013.

“I was back at my alma mater with all of my professors there and all of these people that had supported me and my training,” Ahern says. “I felt very proud to come back to Keene State as a successful professional and a really positive part of this great company.”

This year, Pilobolus celebrates its 45th anniversary. In the years since their founding, they’ve created more than 100 dances, performed at Olympic Games and Oscars ceremonies and even named a New Hampshire native to the top of their roster of performers.

So what’s next?

Executive producer Kubovy explains that Pilobolus’ upcoming projects are threefold.

The first, of course, is new dance material. Though Pilobolus Dance Theater today has many facets, from workshops to public art, their core is still the dance they were built on — the performances you’d call “traditional” if Pilobolus weren’t such a thoroughly nontraditional group.

The ensemble is currently rehearsing a new piece created in collaboration with British choreographer Javier de Frutos and preparing for a holiday residency at the Skirball Center at NYU.

When they’re not learning their own new material, Kubovy says, the Pilobolus staff is busy sharing their expertise with others. The group has always emphasized education — even instructing dancers in New Hampshire over the years through college partnerships and attendant public movement classes — and they plan to continue that mission as they approach a half-century in business.

Of particular interest to a state known for its “silver tsunami,” Pilobolus is currently hard at work on a new series of balance workshops for seniors.

“People are living longer and [staying] agile longer,” Kubovy says. “But falling and [lack of] balance ends up doing a terrible damage to health in this country. So we thought, let’s focus on balance. A different attitude of thinking towards the body, for those generations, can lead to an enormously improved quality of life.”

The group’s balance and movement classes have reached several hundred older adults so far and are set to expand in the coming months.

But perhaps the biggest set of upcoming projects for Pilobolus comes from their ever-growing list of collaborations and side projects.

Following the success of their shadow theatre show, Shadowland, the group recently unveiled Shadowland 2, a family-friendly multimedia piece that spent the summer touring in Europe.

On the other side of the globe, a partnership debuted this fall between Pilobolus, MIT and Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum. The museum commissioned Pilobolus to create a performance art-style dance piece for their River Nights Festival in October, a production that featured local participants and Pilobolus dancers creating living lightscapes with LED umbrellas designed by MIT engineers. The choreography for the piece centered on walking, standing and making shapes — which poses the eternal Pilobolus question.

“Is that dance?” Kubovy asks. “Who knows? But we’re certainly getting 250 people carrying umbrellas to do amazing, beautiful things together,” he says. “They’re extensions of what we do and how we do it.”

photo by tim matson
An early performance of “Pilobolus,” the first dance the student trio choreographed at Dartmouth College. This is the seminal work from which the company evolved.

No matter what you think of their work — “it’s art,” “it’s acrobatics,” “it’s crazy” — there is no denying that Pilobolus has made an indelible mark on the landscape of modern dance. And their collaborative style, focused just as much today as in 1971 on creating as a group rather than repeating moves handed down from a choreographer, resonates far beyond the boundaries of any stage.

“There’s this group mentality,” Ahern says. “It’s an ideal that we work with all the time, and it’s not easy. It’s really hard. You have to concede a lot and give up a lot.

“But we believe that, in the end, all of that is worth it and more minds are better than one. The group will steer you on a better course than any individual will. We believe in that so much that we’ve been doing it for 45 years.”

And, with any luck, New Hampshire’s native dance troupe will keep spreading their philosophy for 45 more.