Making Dances—the “Outsider Art” of Pilobolus

Pilobolus--OKGO collaborationBy Anya Peterson Royce

The Peter Pan bus from Penn Station to Danbury, CT, the A-1 Cab Company to the Homestead Inn, New Milford, CT, into an Enterprise rental car and off on 9 miles of narrow, winding roads to Washington Depot, CT., population 300, and the home of the Pilobolus Dance Theater since the early 1980’s. This became a familiar, if circuitous, route for me as I worked with the company at their home-base. The Peter Pan bus seemed an appropriately magical beginning to a company the likes of which had not ever been seen in the history of American dance.

Pilobolus was the creation of four Dartmouth students, none of whom was a dancer but who signed up for a dance class taught by dancer and choreographer Alison Chase. Wise woman, knowing that learning the fundamentals of dance technique was not going to be possible in a semester, she pushed them instead to create dances. How is this possible, you might ask, in the absence of a technique? They built a wondrous dance-scape out of their bodies, holding on to each other, making an architecture of weight, balance, and gravity that morphed through one intriguing image after another.

That was the beginning and with a few changes–the addition of two women, invitations to others to collaborate in works, developing an evening-long piece based on shadow-work, the company has retained its original ethos. Their philosophy has two tenets: the first encompasses the responsibility of the group to bring out the best in each member, forging a communal vision, and its counterpart, that the individual offer himself completely to the group, and takes responsibility for its smooth functioning and success.

The second tenet assumes that dance and all art is the province of everyone to express themselves eloquently. Technique, then, is not a prerequisite for creating dance. This two-part philosophy defined Pilobolus as a radical departure from theatrical dance in 1971 at its founding, and it still does today, into its fourth decade. “Outsider Art,” is the term Robby Barnett, founding member, used to describe what Pilobolus did, and it certainly looked like that in the context of contemporary dance in twentieth century America.

So how does this philosophy translate into making dances? “Teeth and souls bared” is how one Pilobolus dancer described the daily walk into the studio. Souls bared–allowing oneself to be known, to be vulnerable, to be transparent, holding nothing back. Teeth bared–entering into the potentially terrifying process of proposing ideas, movements and the give and take of acceptance or rejection. Speaking up with your body and your words. Taking risks, being vulnerable, trusting in the community to hold you up even when disagreeing.

Dancer Mark Santillano described this collaborative creative milieu: “So that was the creative process. It wasn’t always pretty. It was never pretty. It was always turbulent and rocky and not everybody agreed on what should go in. Like I said, everybody was very passionate about their work. Everybody was very opinionated so it was stimulating.” Robby Barnett echoes this characterization: “I think our work benefits from more heads. You need conflict. Intelligent people are going to disagree. Strong ideas will prevail. We’re not afraid of conflict.” And another founder, Jonathan Wolken, reflected “One of the disadvantages of collaboration is disagreement, and I think that no matter what you deal with, somehow controversy or conflict, the C word, is bound to creep in. The question is how do you handle it and I think we’ve managed to finesse it and handle it remarkably well, given the 39 years we’ve been practicing this strange alchemy. I don’t know why the three of us are together still. I think there’s unfinished business. There’s more to do, much more to do.”

PilsEblast3 JoyceFBOne of the unusual qualities about Pilobolus is its encouragement of individual difference that goes right back to the founders. It brings many more ideas and ways of working to the table, even though that makes the process longer and often more explosive. But it does avoid the problems that Associate Artistic Director Renée Jaworski identifies: “if you’re in a community where everybody’s strengths are different, and everybody plays to their strengths then you get a great collaboration. If everybody’s strengths are the same, and you’re all trying to grab at the same brass ring then it’s…there’s nothing you can do. You don’t get anywhere. You just end up bumping fists and nobody gets it” (Jaworski interview, September 2009).

The Pilobolus touring company—known as P7, is small—seven dancers and a minimal technical staff. The dancers are in charge of virtually everything while on the road though they maintain contact with the administrative staff and artistic directors back home. Dancers stay with the touring company anywhere from two to nine years, with five or six being the norm. When dancers leave, they have to be replaced and, again, Pilobolus charts its own course. It does not have a school which, like other companies, can be a feeder. It does not have its own recognized technique which is another way of choosing dancers. So what does the audition process involve? Auditions are by appointment only. The first call is two days, one day for women, one day for men. They will usually get 200 to 300 dancers for one or two positions. There are then two days of call-backs when the numbers have been winnowed down to perhaps a dozen at the most. What are the hopeful dancers asked to do? Run—the prolific minds and bodies of Pilobolus directors and dancers have invented dozens of running exercises that rather quickly separate dancers who may be possibles from those who are not. When you have 200 people in one studio all running, it takes a real kinesthetic awareness to run smoothly without bumping into anyone. They are asked to run slow, run fast, run low to the floor or high on the balls of their feet. And then they are asked to flock, following a leader and changing leaders. Starlings do this really well, hence the phrase “murmuration of starlings” to describe the beautiful wheeling actions of large flocks of birds. Humans are not naturally good flockers and in these auditions, they do not have the help of aural cues which seem to be part of bird behavior. What seems to distinguish a good human flocker is a refined kinesthetic sense of her own body in relationship to all the bodies around her. Jumping is then added to running, and, finally, individual dancers do short improvisations and some partnering work.

The dancers who survive this initial four day process are invited to Washington Depot where they spend days and nights with the company members, artistic directors, each other, and locals in the big studio with the seasoned Piloboleans, and at meals, breaks, wandering around the very small town. At the end of this, the company members, directors, and executive director talk and make their choices. Pilobolus dancers are chosen because the company sees something in them that will bring fresh ideas and different ways of moving. A premium is also placed on the willingness to engage in the conversation of ideas and bodies with a genuine commitment to everyone in the conversation. A Pilobolus dancer has to like working in a close-knit community as a colleague, not a competitor, someone who has the capacity to listen to the other voices and be changed. Dancers speak about being supported and nurtured by other more senior dancers when they first joined—being helped in learning the repertory, in negotiating their way in this new context. It is like no other dance company I know, and this philosophy allows them to create innovative, imaginative work that sits well in their bodies because they have collaborated in creating it. Each dancer has a profound investment in maintaining the freshness and vitality of the repertory. It allows them to be models of what can be accomplished through collaborative, engaged work and play. They can step outside the confines of ego and become part of something larger (see Csikszentmihalyi 1990).

auditions announcementThis environment does not just happen. And it is always challenging to immerse oneself in it: “we ask ourselves every day, to do something seriously challenging… and that is to open [ourselves] up, without protection, to the peril and the power of the unknown…. It requires of everyone courage and commitment and a lot of energy and attention, and the risks are real, but it’s what every artist does and the rewards are unique” (Barnett, personal communication).

Whether they come to Pilobolus from one of the better represented dance genres or from another background altogether, their time in the company teaches them movement qua movement. In a conversation with Renée Jaworski, she describes her own experience coming to Momix, then Pilobolus, from a background in Graham and Limon techniques: “When someone said “Pretend you are not a dancer,” it opened up my imagination to almost a visual rather than a physical art. So I started to step out of my body….It became much more visceral and tactile just as if layers piled on themselves.” This is not the same thing as the versatility that comes from training in a number of movement genres. Seasoned Pilobolus dancers command a much fuller understanding of how the human body can move and particularly how it can move in collaboration with other bodies. Their partnering does not derive from a mechanical knowledge of how bodies should move together but rather springs from a physical sensibility. Appreciating the range of innovative movement from the company dancers, P7 veterans bring to their choreographic endeavors a sense of what works both in terms of movement and in terms of narrative, at the same time that they are open to ideas that come out of nowhere. Many of these ideas that become movement kinemes are immortalized in names assigned by the group that created them: “Body flossing,” “galloping sofas,” “the flag,” “Ellington sack carry,” “face-to-face and back-to-back greyhounds, and dozens more.

These are not terms we associate with a technique. So, in making dances, what is the role played by technique? Technique in most companies trumps personalities and spirits. Dances are built out of technique which functions like a grammar; you build movement phrases like you make sentences, then paragraphs, then stories. In traditions with a specific technique, new dancers come into an established repertory of performances with an instrument that has already embodied a codified movement system. Learning the repertory means learning sequences of steps built into longer movement phrases. No other company I know would say to a dancer, “pretend you are not a dancer,” as Pilobolus said to Renée. [I do know of another case where a choreographer took this position: Rita Moreno recounted her experience during the creation of West Side Story when Jerome Robbins directed her to go to the window. After a few attempts, he burst out “Don’t dance to the window; walk or run, but don’t dance!”] Jonathan had important observations about the role of technique: “the techniques dancers have are inhibiting because they’re used to certain steps, certain things. They’re used to being upright and we really are spherical. You know, you’re as likely to be sideways as upside down as on your feet. A lot of what we do that deals with weight sharing, and that’s only a small part of what we do really. It is odd for many dancers because the center of gravity is not in your body. It’s some other place and not necessarily in anyone’s body with whom you’re dancing. It’s a physical thing that manages to keep the whole structure together and that’s so odd for dancers who are used to being aligned and knowing where their center is and balancing themselves in particular ways. So it’s tricky, but I think when you come into the company you really shed all of your previous technique. It won’t help you. It will get in your way” (Wolken 2009). Another founding member, Moses Pendleton, called this “collective muscle” in an April 1977 interview with Alan Kriegsman for the Washington Post.

With dancers who do not share a common technique, and in the absence of a single directorial voice, how does Pilobolus makes dances? The artistic directors have explained their process at various times over the long history of this company, displaying a remarkable consistency across the years. In a November 6, 2008 interview with Dennis Coleman, Robby Barnett offered:   “our works are built from the bottom up with a physical vocabulary that is developed through a process of invention and discovery, reflecting some fundamental priority of content over form rather than designing a structure and then filling out its predetermined volume.” Jonathan Wolken, in June 1999 interview at American Dance Festival, said “Collaboration is self-affecting, limited chaos, pulling the knowable out of the unknowable….By end of the second week, the material seems to begin to connect and you can begin to focus on one theme. Reduction is the process…. Things that are convincingly right don’t need any discussion.”

New dancers, new partners, new venues, and new mediums. Add to that heady mix, the particular passions of artistic directors and collaborators, and Pilobolus is unlikely to run out of new ways to make dances.


Anya Peterson Royce, Chancellor’s Professor of Anthropology and Comparative Literature at Indiana University, has followed the Pilobolus Dance Theater as a fan since the 1980’s and as an ethnographer since 2008. Tracing the communal story of Pilobolus allows me to document a creative process that combines the freedom to play and invent with the discipline and vision to distill works of artistic merit out of that seeming chaos. For that and them, I am grateful.

2 thoughts on “Making Dances—the “Outsider Art” of Pilobolus

  1. This is great, I can’t wait for the book;) It is nice to see aspects of my own personal experiences in the company articulated in such a way. The importance of a unique creative family is one of many things that I learned while in Pilobolus and I still use the knowledge in my creative process today. Give Thanks for your contribution Dr. A.P. Royce!

    RAS Mikey C


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