About that uncomfortable laughter thing…

Kind of coincidental that I had posted about Kathleen Breen Combes’s TED Ed talk the other day, going on about the uncomfortable laughter that can bubble up out of the audience during certain pieces.

The following day I got to witness that laughter in action.

At Christmas time our artistic director had given me a ticket to see Pilobolus when they came to town! Woot woot! They’re one of those groups that — even if you haven’t seen them perform — somehow becomes synonymous with modern dance and I was dying to witness them in action. Even better to know that I’d get to share the experience with my fellow dancers!

The evening finally arrived and, as we settled into our seats, there was energetic music playing over the speakers. Instead of a closed curtain we saw the dancers, onstage, warming up and dancing around. This isn’t the first time I’ve been to a performance where the curtains are open before the performance starts. Sometimes it’s a necessity, like when I watched Boston Ballet’s free performance on the Common. It wasn’t realistic to put up a curtain in an outdoor venue like that, so we got to see Jeffrey Cirio and Misa Kuranaga testing out the stage with a few quick steps wearing warm-ups over their costumes. Other times it’s part of the choreography, like in Jiří Kylián’s Bella Figura where the curtain opens while the house lights are still up and the audience members have to scurry to their seats as if they’ve been caught doing something naughty, while simultaneously muttering to themselves that it was quite rude that no one dimmed the house lights to alert them that the intermission was over. Setting the audience on its heels is, of course, part of the scene-setting for the piece.

In this… it was hard to tell whether there was any sort of choreography to the warm-up. This wasn’t what you might expect of a dancer warm-up. There was no lolling about on-stage doing lazy stretches, nor were there quick, marked run-throughs of choreography. Instead it seemed as though they were playing elaborate games, putting on a performance that simply didn’t happen to be listed in the program.

Okay, I’ll admit that at first it did seem a bit contrived. I love modern dance. But there are some factions within modern dance that can seem a bit self-important, a bit holier-than-thou, and a bit my-dog’s-more-Zen-than-your-dog. That whole, “We don’t need no stinkin’ technique because we’re creative!!!” giving the impression that those of us who practice dance within the confines of certain, named techniques are merely dance puppets. Or something. I’m not describing it right. But… I recognize that there is a reason behind their choice to be onstage before the performance. I assume that much of it is to create a connection with the audience in advance of the performance. Instead of the audience being passive watchers while the dancers do all the heavy lifting, those on stage gather energy from the audience and those of us in the seats are, in fact, active participants in what is created. So there’s that. I think it also gives the audience a taste of what’s to come. And, yes, in some ways it may be to purposefully create some discomfort in viewers who expect the curtain to symbolize beginning and end and that the creative mystique will remain shrouded behind it until the appropriate time.

Gah, that was a whole lot of opining about the position of the curtain!

Anyway, the dancers eventually cleared the stage and some stagehands came out to check the position of three long ropes laid across the stage and then the house lights dimmed.

The first piece was a newer one called “Licks” (2013). The program notes didn’t give any back story to this (or any of the works, for that matter) other than to say that it had been commissioned by the American Dance Festival. These were very much open for interpretation. It turns out that my first thought on this was… “I wonder if the professor of that physics class I took last semester has seen this?” The piece opened with six dancers coming on stage wearing sunglasses (or were they dark safety goggles?) and tan dance pants (with bra tops for the ladies) and using those ropes I mentioned to put on what seemed like a stereotypical physics class presentation about the propagation of waves. I know that Pilobolus does collaborations with seemingly absolutely-not-dance-related fields, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that there was some sort of physics-class inspiration behind this! From there they moved on to wrapping and unwrapping themselves and the other dancers in the ropes. Those ropes were gradually replaced by shorter and shorter ropes as the piece went on. It was a very high energy piece and a great way to open the show.

It was followed by two works from the early days of Pilobolus. “Ocellus” (1972) featured four male dancers performing what I can only describe as mobile sculpture. While there were a few moments of nervous laughter at various moments in “Licks” this piece, from the very beginning, evoked, if not nervous laughter, nervous squirming. Why? Well, first off let’s just say that the costume for this piece was essentially a nude-colored dance belt. Needless to say the entire audience did a double-take when they first came onstage worrying (?) that we were privy to some sort of nude dance show. And the second part of nervous squirming came from the fact that the four men were in very close contact with one another throughout the piece as they gradually moved across the stage in various lifts, slow-mo flips, etc. As I said, it felt like I was watching a sculpture morph. To me it was beautiful to see the human form, unobscured, showing a range of motion, control, and, yes, intimacy. But I could almost hear the collective inner shrieking of many of my fellow audience members which went along the lines of, “Oh my gosh, did you see how close that guy’s face is to that other guy’s junk, OMG?!!?” Considering the fact that we live in a society where people still get uppity when they see same-sex hand-holding in public, it doesn’t surprise me that people get squirmy about this. I just hope that as the piece evolved the audience was able to move past their initial shock and see the amazing individual and collective strength and trust these dancers demonstrated. I found it incredibly moving.

The second of the “old works” was a dance that was about 180 degrees from “Ocellus” and that was “Walklyndon” (1971). To me this was pure Mummenschanz-esque, slapstick, frivolous and hilarious ridiculousity (which I realize is not a word, but feel 100% that it should be!). The dancers in this wore yellow unitards with different, brightly colored boxing shorts over top. Though this was created long before the Simpsons ever came to be, that’s all I could think of when I was watching this. If there had been someone with a bright blue bouffant and another with an ever-present pacifier I would have felt for sure I had landed in Springfield! There was no musical accompaniment for this. Instead the dancers simply ran across stage, occasionally making some sort of yell or slap. Ooh, you’re in luck, they’ve posted a segment of it online! Here, watch for yourself!

At the very end of this piece they opened a sheet onstage and there were words from Teller (the little guy of the infamous Penn & Teller duo) projected onto the sheet asking for two audience volunteers to help assemble a box with power tools during the intermission. They promised coffee and donuts, then admitted that this was all a lie and all the audience members would get was a measly bottle of water. Ha! A couple eager viewers were chosen and then it was intermission time, during which people snickered about the costuming in “Ocellus”. Sigh.

Okay, intermission over and now things got a bit interesting. Er, a LOT interesting. You may have wondered why there were words from Teller. Well, the next piece “[esc]” (2013) was created by Penn & Teller, among others. If you don’t know about these guys, they are comedic magicians, so as you may expect, “[esc]” involved lots of illusions set to music with a recorded voice-over by Penn Jillette. This is where I realized that calling Pilobolus a dance company might not really explain what it is they do; “movement art” may be a better term. Because this was essentially a very acrobatic magic act. I won’t give it all away but suffice it to say that nearly all of the six dancers on stage were at some point bound, gagged, or otherwise incapacitated and we witnessed their escapes from all of these. The final trick was truly mind-boggling and we’re still trying to figure out how they did it!

“Rushes” (2007) was the final piece in the performance and probably the most involved. It opened with a bunch of chairs placed in a circle around a circle of white marley (or other flooring). There were dancers sitting in some of the chairs and it almost felt like a waiting room of some sort. The piece was made up of multiple different scenes involving the characters (each dancer did seem to be portraying a specific character in this one). As the piece progressed the chairs were moved around and at one point the movement of the chairs became as much a part of the dancing as the people. There was something ethereal about this piece and at the end I felt as though something transformative had taken place. I was moved and touched without quite knowing why. Altogether beautiful. Found another excerpt which you can see here:

You can hear in the video (which was posted five years ago) some of that uncomfortable laughter. I’m not sure the laughter was entirely INappropriate. There are some movements which just strike us as fun or funny and I don’t think the choreographers were being super serious and deep when they put this together. But you can almost hear the audience members thinking, “What, this is DANCE?! But this is silly? What are they doing? Why did he just do that? I don’t get it?!” without realizing that you don’t have to get it necessarily… you just have to experience it.

More about experiencing Pilobolus in my next post! Stay tuned…

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One thought on “About that uncomfortable laughter thing…

  1. […] So, last post I talked about going to see Pilobolus perform. […]

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