Pilobolus, Joyce Theater, New York – review

Pilobolus has proved a contradictory experience this summer. In the course of 10 pieces spanning four decades in two programmes, the eight performers were not the only shape-shifters. Notions of illusion and sexuality kept changing too.

The newly, and blessedly, revived Molly’s Not Dead is funny for being strange. The antic 1978 piece is a parody of the western only if “Maggie’s Farm” is a parody of “Old MacDonald”: the targets are multiple and include the dance itself. In one episode, a hick woos a flirt with the help of his double – and triple – glommed on to him from behind. Three sets of palms grease back his hair; three arms wave the girl over. When he offers her his lap, he sits back on man #2, who sits on man #3, who sits on the air. Eventually the extras grow impatient with their recalcitrant leader and make his moves for him.

Molly’s Not Dead is a cartoon of a cartoon. Physical approximations are spot-on for being crude: a man has a balled-up dancer for a paunch, and two men tumbling over each other represent tumbleweed. The shape-shifting is elaborate and transparent like children’s make-believe or even modern dance, in its opposition to illusory ballet. Molly’s Not Dead feels fresh because the comedy of human haplessness, including attempts at art, never grows old.

Not so the celebrations of the body beautiful. Imagine Edward Weston photographing a woman’s spine and hips to resemble a bell pepper rather than the other way around, and you will have some idea of Ocellus. In this 1972 quartet for thonged men, butt-cheeks line up like chorus girls.

But this mildly fetishistic dance seems positively wholesome beside the premieres. Since 2007, the troupe has collaborated with artists who possess Pilobolean sympathies, loosely defined: jugglers (they can work with human balls!), cartoonists (why not “draw” live action figures in space?), puppeteers and even the occasional choreographer. This year’s recruits were the hugely popular Houdini-esque magicians Penn & Teller and Trish Sie, video-choreographer for the internet-inclined rock band OK Go. This marks Sie’s third Pilobolus piece in as many years, with the other two also featured this season.

Penn & Teller put on a tight show. In quick succession, they stuck newcomer Ben Coalter in a box, assembled at intermission by audience volunteers and extensively padlocked; zipped Jun Kuribayashi into a duffel bag (his seat in economy class); had Jordan Kriston duct-taped to her chair; and chained Matt Del Rosario and Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern, in customary thongs, to a 13-foot pole to the accompaniment of The Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post”. Suffice it to say that in [esc] everyone loosed their bonds.

Only the pole trick, however, exercised illusion as Pilobolus has understood it – without sleight of hand. As for sexiness and sexuality, [esc] brought the troupe up to date, with its allusions to S&M-tinged pole-dancing strippers. In case the chains and whipping post were not signals enough, Penn Jillette joked that the men would be waiting in the lobby after the show for us to stick bills in their “G-strings” for an encore.

Sie’s Licks was also stripper-themed – rodeo-themed too. Ropes replaced chains. Instead of disentangling themselves from a pole, the dancers ground their hips. The holograph-like rope-twirling was thrilling, at least.

Whether they meant to, Licks and [esc] planted us in front of the mirror of our cultural moment and forced us to look. Since Pilobolus’s start, love has stopped even pretending to be free. And the trick, in sex as much as magic, is all.

Until August 4, www.joyce.org

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