Pilobolus Returns to the Joyce, a Fascinating Species in Decline
When Pilobolus last appeared at the Joyce Theater, five years ago, it was business as usual. This popular troupe of mime-acrobats named after a fungus used to sprout in Chelsea every summer with new and recent growths. Its return this week, was an opportunity for reintroduction. Only one work on the two programs is newish — “Branches,” a middling nature study created in 2017 — so the thrust turns out to be retrospective, a sampling of four decades of repertory. The question raised is what to make of a diminished thing.
These programs aren’t exactly a case of the older, the better. The earliest work, “Walklyndon,” from 1971 (the year that a group of Dartmouth College students formed Pilobolus), has decayed from deadpan to dead. People still laugh at its slapstick collisions and abusive gags, but the humor has gone stale.
The founding generation is no longer with the troupe, directed since 2016 by the dancers Renée Jaworski, who joined the company in 2000, and Matt Kent, who joined in 1996. The current members are excellent gymnasts but much less vivid theatrical personalities than the original oddballs. They are distanced from the Monty Python-era spirit of “Walklyndon,” as if dutifully telling jokes their father heard from his father.
Still, nothing created after 1975 comes close to matching Untitled,” made that year and opening Program B. It’s a work that seems to have invented a new kind of theater. What first appears to be a joke about Victorian female attire — two women in big-bustled dresses with too much fabric — soon becomes something stranger, a dream about female power.
The women rise to twice their height. Their dresses mostly cover the men on whose shoulders they sit, but we can see the men’s hairy legs. That dissonance is like an oddly colored thread that the work pulls as the men emerge, naked, and the women cradle them like newborns. The hole the men came out of can also swallow them — them or the two clothed male suitors who fight acrobatically, as silly men do.
By the time that “Day Two” was made, in 1981, the company roster had changed drastically, and something was already missing. The acrobatics are more amazing than ever, but where “Untitled” is uncanny, “Day Two” takes a turn toward the trippy and pseudo-spiritual. (Momix, the troupe that spun off from Pilobolus, followed that path into kitsch.)
What’s best about “Day Two,” besides its famously fun slip-and-slide coda, is the sense of imagining a time before humans had settled on ways of moving and interacting, a time of discovery. The two Joyce programs show how Pilobolus has returned to that barely clothed mode again and again; three more works might also have been titled “Day Two.”
The most recent iteration, “On the Nature of Things” (2014), is the weakest, an Adam-and-Eve fable balanced on a tiny platform, creepy in the bad sense. In “Gnomen,” from 1997, some of the wonder is still there, as four male humanoids treat one another like puppets. The 2001 “Symbiosis” is a solid retread of the male-female variation. The structure is typically slack, yet for moments, as when the woman does a slow somersault down the upright front of the man (the giant Jacob Michael Warren, a standout among the current group), the old symbiosis of strength, skill and shape glows into poetry.
It would be fair, though, to infer that Pilobolus was in a rut. One strategy of the past decade or so has been to bring in outside collaborators. The example here is “Rushes,” made in 2007 with the Israeli choreographers Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak. The gambit half works. The start is like a dull silent movie or unfunny Three Stooges, but once the performers start manipulating chairs into a chorus line, the work takes off, and in a section of sliding in socks, a new and beautiful kind of motion is introduced into the Pilobolan universe.
You could call that section dance. “Branches,” the sole work never before performed at the Joyce, is also dance-y by the group’s standards. It closes out Program A, which generally recalls the Pilobolus of five years ago by interspersing the stage works with lightly entertaining short films of Pilobolus-like animation.
The cartoon Neanderthals of “Day Two” reappear in “Branches,” as does portentous slow motion. The performers do decent imitations of birds and elephants and the evolution of man, touching on beauty. But it all feels, in the end, like what it is: a late-generation copy. After a five-year absence, the fungus is still alive but not showing many signs of growth.
Through June 29 at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan; joyce.org.