Pilobolus dance troupe returns to Las Vegas

Updated January 18, 2018 - 9:39 pm

All roads lead to Vegas.

Including the one leading the shape-shifting dance troupe Pilobolus back to The Smith Center for Tuesday’s “Pilobolus Maximus” performance.

Continuing the Vegas connection, “Pilobolus Maximus — Beyond the Limits of Dance” serves as a veritable Pilobolus buffet, with four short-form pieces that showcase different aspects of the troupe’s collective talents, according to co-artistic director Matt Kent.

The program offers “a wide spectrum of experiences … some new, some old,” he explains in a telephone interview from Pilobolus’ rural Connecticut base. “The show has a modular form,” with “some variation” so the troupe can perform at multiple tour venues.

For example, Smith Center audiences won’t be seeing “The Transformation,” an excerpt from Pilobolus’ shadow-play program “Shadowland.”

But Pilobolus couldn’t come to Las Vegas and not perform “[esc]” — a 2013 collaboration with longtime Rio headliners Penn & Teller.

The program describes it as “the ultimate piece of gripping, do-not-try-this-at-home choreography.”

As Kent adds, “doing escapes other people can’t do, because of (a) physical strength and agility and mental focus” that echoes magic’s most celebrated escape artist, Harry Houdini. The performers’ attire also echoes Houdini’s: They appear “almost nude,” Kent says, “in nothing but chains and locks.”

Alas, Penn & Teller won’t be on hand for Pilobolus’ Smith Center visit, Kent says, although “I wish they were.” At least Penn’s voice makes a guest appearance on the soundtrack. (It could hardly be silent-on-stage Teller’s, although Teller has his own collaboration with Kent and Pilobolus: his 2014 Smith Center staging of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” for which Kent choreographed the twisty moves of the character Caliban, a monster embodied by a pair of Pilobolus dancers.)

Bookending the Pilobolus sampler: 2007’s quirky “B’zyrk,” which he describes as “a mash-up of low and highbrow” moves reminiscent of “the circus comes to town.” An obscure Eastern European circus, where audiences will see the performers “act the fool and laugh, and then be amazed and awed by the same group of seven dancers.”

The newest piece on the program is 2017’s “Branches,” which was commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts — and was “inspired by paying attention in nature,” Kent says. “It’s amazing what you see if you just put your damn screens down.”

The piece was created “with improvisation from the dancers,” he explains, noting the creative process began with a hike where the Pilobolus members didn’t talk, just walked 30 feet apart from each other.

The resulting work represents the “classic Pilobolus aesthetic,” in Kent’s view: “Not a lot of clothes, just dancers, not a lot of props.”

Contrasting with the nature-inspired “Branches,” 2014’s “On the Nature of Things” finds a trio of dancers balanced atop a column 2 feet wide.

“It’s kind of a creation myth,” Kent says. “We were interested in what would happen if we constrained the dancers. It’s scary enough to stand up there, as opposed to having to lift people and sling them around.”

Rounding out Tuesday’s program: 2007’s “Rushes,” part of the troupe’s International Collaborators Project, which brought Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak to Pilobolus, where they created “a theatrical, surreal world” populated by six dancers, Kent notes.

Short video sequences featuring Pilobolus dancers at work provide transition between each segment of the program, extending the range of artistry on display.

With so many changes in one program, “there are people that might not like that so much,” Kent acknowledges, “but for us, we just continue to expand.”

And the direction the shape-shifting Pilobolus dancers are heading?

“We’re doing what interests us,” he says, “trying to test the limits of human physicality with power, beauty, humor — and the drama of connected bodies and connected humanity.”

Making connections

The dance troupe Pilobolus takes its name from a phototropic fungus, “a little mushroom that grows in cow dung,” as co-artistic director Matt Kent explains. “It’s an amazing … tiny thing,” he notes, not least because its stalk comes equipped with “an eyeball that can twist and turn in refracting light.” And that’s not all; it also launches spores with explosive power.

That lesson is just one of many featured in Pilobolus’ school show, “Pilobolus Is a Fungus,” which the troupe will present Tuesday at The Smith Center, prior to that evening’s public performance.

Company members also will be teaching classes at Opportunity Village, Kent says, “sharing our approach to getting people together and making art — even if you’re not a dancer.”

That collaborative philosophy remains a guiding principle for Pilobolus, according to the co-artistic director, who cites the “inclusive nature” of the group.

“No piece would exist without the dancers,” he observes. Unlike some dance companies, Pilobolus is “not a single person’s vision. It’s not ‘Five, six, seven, eight and step, step, turn, turn.’ ”

Instead, Pilobolus members “go into the studio with a problem to solve,” and “they’re comfortable asking those questions” that lead to a creative breakthrough, he says.

These days, “it’s more and more and more important to be connected and have dialogue and create,” Kent maintains. “We all end up agreeing to do something we all love.”

Preview

What: “Pilobolus Maximus — Beyond the Limits of Dance”

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Reynolds Hall, The Smith Center for the Performing Art, 361 Symphony Park Ave.

Tickets: $24-$95

Contact Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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