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The Plain Dealer, Zachary Lewis  |  February 11, 2015

Pilobolus exudes strength with every step of show at Playhouse Square (review)

CLEVELAND, Ohio - Supremely powerful and incredibly lithe, the dancers of Pilobolus exude strength even in moments or depictions of weakness.

Ditto the renowned troupe's performance for DanceCleveland Saturday night at Playhouse Square. No matter that some pieces were more potent conceptually than others. Pilobolus still wowed with every step.

The company was at its best when deployed in the realization of a clear and robust concept. So athletic are its members, complex or overly abstract notions tended not to serve them effectively.

Hence the sheer, all-around delight in "All is Not Lost," a 2011 collaboration with director Trish Sie and rock band OK Go. The night's shortest offering, the piece also packed the most charm, and made its point most directly.

Video from a camera on the floor looking up through a clear platform fed to a large screen, affording a vertical view of events transpiring on a horizontal surface. Sounds dry, perhaps, but in fact, it was entrancing.

Dancers sliding or crawling on the platform appeared to be falling, while various combinations of feet and bodies produced the hypnotic effects of a kaleidoscope or lava lamp. One truly could have watched for hours.

Same goes for "On the Nature of Things," the program opener. An ode to human nature and the human form, the 2014 piece stood as an example of all that's best about Pilobolus.

Clad in practically nothing, three dancers with spectacular bodies slowly contorted on a small pedestal, weaving limbs, lifting torsos, and generally defying gravity with fluid, statuesque grace. At the same time, the woman and two men also seemed to play out a kind of love triangle, forming and breaking bonds with every sequence.

Created in 1991, "Sweet Purgatory" was by far the night's oldest offering. Still, it contained dancing of great vitality and freshness, and bathed the company in a welcome, more traditional light.

Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony, a work of peerless angst and intensity, served as the soundtrack to balletic partnering and dynamic ensemble sequences far more strenuous than Pilobolus let on. Somber lighting and costumes rounded out an absorbing scene no doubt true to the grim reflections that inspired the music.

Pilobolus was less compelling Saturday treading ground occupied by conventional modern dance companies, presenting pieces steeped in emotion and vague, high-art concepts. Still, the troupe's sheer physicality made even those types of performances joys to behold.

"The Inconsistent Pedaler," created with film artists Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret, was a zany romp involving an elderly man and friends celebrating his 99th birthday. Dormant by themselves, the characters - a girl, a couple, the man, and a mischievous figure in a diaper - sprang to life at the pedaling of a stationary bike at center stage.

Much of the scene was chaos, a festival of slapstick comedy entailing little true dancing and few Pilobolus-style feats. Eventually, though, as various participants took turns riding, the party coalesced into a sweet, even touching ode to our impermanence.

Dance companies rarely present works in progress. But that's exactly what Pilobolus did Saturday, to its credit. "Untitled" may still need work, and a name, but inviting the audience to share in the creative process was genius.

The holdup was the narrative. Exactly what was going on as five dancers in dingy clothing hurdled across the stage, through and around a swinging door on wheels, never became clear.

Heartbreak and anguish abounded. Neither, though, was as plentiful as the awe viewers felt from simply witnessing such incredible performers in action.


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