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AUDIENCE REVIEW: A Weekend of Dance on Film: Sill Moving: Pilobolus at Forty and The Dancer Films Live

A Weekend of Dance on Film: Sill Moving: Pilobolus at Forty and The Dancer Films Live

A Weekend of Dance on Film: Sill Moving: Pilobolus at Forty and The Dancer Films Live

Performance Date:

Company / Show / Event
A Weekend of Dance on Film: Sill Moving: Pilobolus at Forty and The Dancer Films Live

Performance Date

Venue / Location
Mill Valley Film Festival and The Mondavi Center at UC Davis

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(your occupation, the last time you moved, your website, etc.)

Shelly Gilbride has a PhD in Performance Studies from UC Davis and is the founder of PDA: Public Dance Acts. She is writing from sunny Northern California.

Freeform Review:

Screening dance films is not a usual weekend activity in my neck of Northern California, and yet last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending 2 events that showcased films featuring contemporary American dance artists and cartoons.

On Saturday, October 6th, I attended a screening of Jeffrey Ruoff’s documentary Still Moving: Pilobolus at Forty at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Against the pastoral backdrops of Dartmouth College, the birthplace of Pilobolus in 1971, and the collective’s longtime home in Washington Depot, CT, Ruoff tells the history of Pilobolus through the words and the movement of the group as it exists today.

Pilobolus is America’s most famous dance collective, and arguably one of America’s most successful dance companies. The group’s storied beginnings as a bunch of jocks with no formal dance training, their the democratic, non-hierarchical artistic process and their ability to flow in, out and around mainstream popular culture have made them darlings of the dance world and the subjects of intense critical debate.

The foundation for the film was Pilobolus’ return to Dartmouth College in 2010 to premiere Hapless Hooligan, a quirky collaboration with cartoonist Art Spiegelman. While the glimpse into the creative process of Hapless Hooligan would have made for an interesting film, the film took on a very different life when one of Pilobolus’ founders, Jonathan Wolken, died the day before filming began.

The most poignant moment of the film features the Pilobolus classic, Gnomen. As the audience hears members of the Pilobolus community remembering Wolken, we watch one of his great creative collaborations, a piece that stands the test of time with its intricate intensity. Gnomen is a quartet exploring masculinity and group dynamics. In the film Gnomen becomes a tribute to Wolken and a metaphor for the unique collaborative process that Pilobolus has been able to maintain for forty years.

In Gnomen, there is a constant struggle between the individual and the group. As with every Pilobolus piece I’ve ever seen, the most interesting movement in Gnomen happens when the dancers are all working together rather than soloing. Pilobolus is not about the virtuosity of any one of its members, but about what is created when they create something together. The whole of Pilobolus is greater than any one of its members or any one of its dances.

On Sunday, October 7th, I attended the Dancer Films Live event at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at UC Davis. It was a bold programmatic move for the Mondavi Center to present a series of short films about modern dance considering that dance audiences tend to be small for anything other than Alvin Ailey or the Nutcracker. The free event was billed as part film, part performance, part participation – an interesting and tricky mix. The event had some wonderful moments and the Dancer Films Live project has amazing potential with a bit more finessing.

The Dancers Films are juicy little nuggets of whimsy featuring ex-Cunningham dancer Andrea Weber as the embodiment of cartoonist Jules Feiffer’s acclaimed modern dancer cartoon. Directed by Judy and Ellen Dennis and choreographed by Susan Marshall, the films are playfully quirky, beautifully danced and cinematically interesting. The films are very short, in keeping with the quick visual punch of cartoons, but the event in its entirety felt a little too short.

After the audience watched the films, Weber appeared onstage and danced one of the dances live. She is a stunning technician who manages to be precise without being austere. She is warm and engaging, and I wished she had danced more of the choreography live that we had just seen on film.  It was interesting to see how the choreography changed when stripped of the cinematography.

But Weber seemed to struggle with the balance of being both dancer and MC. If the participatory part of the program had the same investment of time, craft and intent as the films, the event would have been wonderful.

As the flashmob sensation continues to grow, I think a common mistake among presenters and dance companies is to think of participation as an easy add-on. But building participatory dance events takes the same kind of craft and attention to detail as any other choreographic endeavor. Setting matters. Transitions matter. Scale matters. The space was not conducive to participation and the construction of the participatory exercises needed to be finessed so people felt comfortable and their creativity was activated. Ultimately everyone had fun and the event was worthwhile, but I’m still thinking about what it could have been.

Dancer Films Live is still evolving and I am sure that it will be refined as it is presented across the country. The Dancer Films are certainly worth viewing! And for you New Yorkers, Still Moving: Pilobolus at Forty will be screening at DOC: NYC in November.



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