Pilobolus: Macalester collaboration

Macalesters+student+collaborators+rehearsing.+Photo+by+Sophie+Nikitas.

Macalester’s student collaborators rehearsing. Photo by Sophie Nikitas.

Macalester's student collaborators rehearsing. Photo by Sophie Nikitas.
]1 Macalester’s student collaborators rehearsing. Photo by Sophie Nikitas.

Macalester’s dance department may be small, but its accomplishments are big. This year, Macalester got the opportunity to work with Pilobolus, a world-famous modern dance company, through The Ordway’s “College Connections” program. The Ordway established the program four years ago to build stronger ties to Twin Cities college campuses.

This year, the Ordway spearheaded a project that combines scientific academia and visual art. Macalester dance students are working with three classes from St. Thomas—an environmental studies course, an ecology course, and a film course—to create a dance that explores how humans interact with the environment. Members of Pilobolus’ education outreach and artistic direction branches oversee intensive rehearsal weeks to workshop the dancers and guide the creation of the piece. The goal is to take fields of study that are usually not associated, and weave them together with dance in a Pilobolus-like aesthetic.

Founded by a group of Dartmouth students in 1969, Pilobolus is known for its unusual approach to dance. Several founders had scientific backgrounds and wanted to explore how the human body could be a medium for expressing scientific thought. In fact, “pilobolus” is a fungus which grows in farmyards and propels itself toward the sun. Readers may recognize the company from their performance at the 2007 Academy Awards, where dancers emulated images from the nominated films using the shadows of their bodies. Pilobolus is in its 41st year, and is constantly searching for new modes of expression and fresh ideas for collaboration.

“Pilobolus is known for its arts engagement,” said Amy Miller, Community Programs Manager. “They are always looking for collaborators outside of the arts.”

Over its lifespan, the company has worked with MIT’s Robotics Laboratory, the band OK Go, and now, Macalester and St. Thomas.

“It’s a very different creative process than what a lot of us were used to,” said Josie Ahrens ’14, a dancer in the piece. She explains that visiting Pilobolus instructors would often ask the dancers to improv as a basis for choreography. “If they liked it they would say ‘Do it again,’ or ‘Do it backward’ or ‘Do it 50 times faster,’ ” and eventually, incorporate it into the dance.

The process relies heavily on trust, as the dancers quickly found out.

“The nature of these processes forced us all to rely on each other,” said Carly Silva ’13, one of the student leaders charged with leading rehearsals and communicating with the Ordway and the dance company. “If you’re in the mentality of working together as a group, the dance will still succeed even if it’s different from the last time you did it.”

Physical cooperation is also a key component. “We are literally building on top of one another,” said Hally Chaffin ’13, Silva’s co-leader. “I have to trust Laura [Levinson ’14] not to drop me on my head.”

As choreography progressed, scientific themes emerged more clearly from the dancers’ movements. Part of the dance is inspired by the “Red Queen hypothesis,” which theorizes that organisms must constantly adapt and reproduce within their ever-evolving environments in order to survive. The dancers spent most of the past Sunday rehearsal exploring how to execute their interpretation, which involves constant movement, balance and physical building of bodies. It was particularly challenging because two dancers were unable to attend rehearsal that day.

“It’s really hard to do the dance if even one person is missing,” Ahrens admitted, “because we are literally building on top of each other and sharing weight and using our bodies to create something new.” After several minutes of confusion, the dancers finally figured out a sensible way for them to compensate for their shortage of dancers.

“We’ve gotta be like challah!” said Isabella Kulkarni ’13, directing the dancers to weave themselves in a challah-like formation, to better support her weight as she stepped on their backs. This physical feat, if done improperly, could be painful and even dangerous. But Pilobolus’ style is to challenge the physical and mental capacity of its dancers bodies, pushing them to the limit and seeing the results.

The whole dance seemed designed to harness energy, which was released in bursts of strength and emotion. The dancers worked together to modify the choreography for aesthetic reasons, or due to physical limitations. Often, people would throw out suggestions for how to improve a movement. Everyone’s opinion was valuable, and all suggestions were tried.

Miller hopes that this project will impact on how local college campuses connect with the arts. To her, it is important for scholars to have “access points” to the arts, in order to develop out of the box-thinking. ““This is teaching interdisciplinary thinking and learning,” she said. “Artists learn from scholars, and scholars learn from artists.”

The piece will premiere at Macalester’s Spring Dance Concert on May 3 and 4, which coincides with Pilobolus’ own visit to the Twin Cities. Pilobolus will perform at the Ordway on May 4. Tickets are going fast, but Macalester students are highly encouraged to take advantage of the student discount, which provides $90 tickets for $15. Tickets for Pilobolus at the Ordway are available online. Look on www.ordway.org under “Performances” for Pilobolus on May 4, 2013.

Student dancers:

Josie Ahrens ’14, Emma Buechs ’13, Hally Chaffin ’13, Emily Frobom ’15, Anna Johnson ’14, Kate Keleher ’13, Isabella Kulkarni ’13, Laura Levinson ’14, Alice Madden ’13, Madeline McCabe (St. Catherine) ’16, Hana Sato ’15, Carly Silva ’13, Laurel Thompson ‘15