The Shadow Knows – Dance Company Pilobolus returns to UCSB’s Arts & Lectures

John Kane Photo
John Kane Photo

Though the dance company Pilobolus counts over 100 works in its repertory, the majority of readers will know it from its shadow pieces. Featured in Hyundai ads and on the Oscars, the dancers assemble themselves into organic shapes, from animals to teapots, and the audience sees them only through a screen. But this intersection of “art and athletics,” as The New York Times once wrote, has many more levels, as their return to UCSB’s Arts & Lectures on Thursday demonstrates.

For Renée Jaworski, choreographer and former dancer with the company, Pilobolus is unlike any other organization, and this is from a former member of the equally wacky Momix.

“Their philosophy is approaching work as play,” she says. “It can be difficult. Some dancers are trained to do what they’re told. So the biggest switch is asking dancers to tell us what they’re going to do. In Pilobolus, you are a collaborator. Everybody is on equal footing, and throwing out ideas is necessary.”

Jaworski says her desire to become a choreographer helped her make her own switch, and many of the group’s members come from backgrounds other than dance: theater, martial arts and even visual arts. It is all part of the Pilobolus mixing pot experience.

Thursday night’s program includes “Contradance” (choreographed by Matt Kent and Jaworski), “Pseudopodia” (by the recently deceased Jonathan Wolken), “Gnomen” (Robby Barnett), “Women’s Duet,” (Alison Chase) “Dog•id” (partly by “SpongeBob SquarePants” head writer Steven Banks) and “Megawatt” (also by Wolken).

To give an example of Pilobolus’ working method, Jaworski explains her own work, which started with musician Dan Zanes, formerly of the Del Fuegos but now a family musician. Zanes is known for inviting his audience (mostly kids) to come up onstage and create a work, so Pilolobus’ sense of fun wasn’t too far off.

“He was completely blown away by how we go at it,” she says. “It looks completely disorganized when we start, but by the end of the day, we have something.”

The result, “Contradance,” has storytelling experience for the kids — with music and song — and a bit of a departure for the weirder, adult company, as well.

“As Robby Barnett likes to say, we have a blue-collar approach to choreography,” she says. “We come in every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for six weeks, and by the end, we have to have a piece. We do it every day, regardless of how we’re feeling. It’s really liberating to know that I don’t have to come in with brilliant ideas or know exactly what I’m doing. I can come in and let the dancers feed me so we can mush things around in the pot and see what develops.”

“Dog•id” is a shadow piece, so audiences will get the classic Pilobolus experience. These works are clever and precise, so it must be very difficult behind the screen. The audience sees the shadows and our brain creates the shapes, but for the dancers, it’s very different.

“I don’t consider it choreography in that I never tell the dancers what to do,” Jaworski says. “We just say make an elephant, make a house… and they choreograph themselves. You have to have a visual sense of line and a kinesthetic sense of what you’re trying to make.”

Outside the theater, Jaworski has found the Pilobolus ideology influencing her.

“It’s taught me a lot about how I can live my life creatively to resemble anything I dream,” she says. “They made something out of nothing. And when it’s done, it’s done. The art form exists just for that moment.”

When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: The Granada, 1214 State St.
Cost: $43 to $53 general, $21 UCSB students
Information: (804) 893-3535,

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