The Pilobolus Experience

Well, hello, again, dear reader. I really need to get on top of posting when things are still relevant rather than a month after the fact, but better to post late than not at all, eh?

So, last post I talked about going to see Pilobolus perform.

Which is an experience.

But the Pilobolus Experience can only truly be gained when you get to dance with Pilobolus!

Yeah, don’t get all excited here, it’s not like I was discovered while I was walking out of the theatre or anything.

BUT!!!

The director of our studio/company had contacted them around the time she got our tix and asked if they would be willing to offer a master class while they were in town. And they said yes!!!

Woot!

So the day after we got to see them on stage we poured into the big studio at our school to get schooled by Matt Del Rosario and Nile Russell, the dance co-captains of Pilobolus. Eek!!!

We ended up having over 30 students attend the class. Many were from our school, but we also had students from other local studios (some of our teachers have gigs at other schools and had put the word out). While a ballet class with that many people would have been weird, it was great to have such a crowd for something like this. The ages ranged from probably 11-ish to 50-something (one of our ballet teachers who had originally come to “just watch” decided that she wanted to participate which was AWESOME!). Matt and Nile passed the word to warm ourselves up because there wasn’t going to be some sort of choreographed, warm-up nonsense here! (Not their exact words, just… you know.)

Once the majority of the crowd had trickled in we sat in a giant circle and they gave us a brief intro of themselves and what to expect over the following two hours. There would be no choreography. There would be a lot of movement. We should push ourselves beyond what we’re used to.

So the class opened up with us just walking around the studio, trying to avoid that old skating rink standard of going around and around the room in a monotonous circle, but trying to find holes in the crowd, explore open spaces, notice something about the space you might not have paid attention to before. We were asked to pick up speed, to (obviously) avoid collisions… but without saying anything. Now this got a little funny because they’re telling us to make eye contact, learn how to negotiate spaces with your fellow dancer, etc. and there were a lot of people who still insisted on staring at the floor and looking terrified. I found this kind of hilarious because IRL I can collapse into that shell of, “I don’t know you, don’t look at me, leave me alone,” but in this setting I’m all, “Hey, kid, I don’t bite, I swear… we’re all in this together, look at me, smile, it’s FUN goddammit!!!”

But I think part of it, aside from the wide range of ages in the group (being honest with myself, I totally would have been a floor-starer if I had been taking this class 20 years ago!), is that there’s awkwardness being in a dance studio with so many strangers. Some of it is just normal jitters, but I think, too, for better or worse in the dance world it can be hard to let go of that sense of competition. We all hope that we’ll be recognized for our individual merits and when you’re in an environment where you’re told to collaborate with these people who may be “better” than we are we fight against it. We want to be a principal dancer, not part of the corps!

The exercise progressed.

At one point we all ended up clumping together and were asked to find a single breath where everyone inhaled simultaneously and exhaled simultaneously and were asked to make that breath to be “seen”. That alone seemed to break down some of the barriers among the dancers.

There was another part where we would find a partner, at random, and hold hands and navigate the crowd. Then we’d go find another partner. Find a foursome. Connect to another foursome. Etc. Until we were all connected in one crazy, connected clump and had to navigate into a large circle without breaking the chain.

After this there were more group exercises. These were largely about being able to communicate through movement and openness with your group to create a cohesive movement or story. It wasn’t about everyone doing the same thing, but about being able to tell the people you were dancing with what you were going to do without talking. And the exercises were punctuated with opportunities to share our thoughts about what we were being asked to do and Nile and Matt would provide insight as dancers, but also as humans. When we deny each other eye contact what are we saying to the person we pass on the street? We may think we are simply saying nothing, we may be missing opportunities to see what is beyond our own small worlds.

The last part of class we were divided into four groups and each given a wacky scenario that we would need to “dance” for the other groups. There was no set choreography, no set music, nothing. We simply had to decide how we would tell our story and how we would communicate change points with one another while we were performing. Each group went up and performed and received feedback from Matt and Nile and the other groups about what they thought was going on, what confused them, etc. After each group performed we were able to chat with our group for a minute or so and then we got to perform our pieces one more time, integrating the feedback we had received.

And with that, class was over.

But it wasn’t.

Not really.

Because what I experienced in those two hours was powerful.

In some ways it brought me back to a place I had forgotten about. The techniques used in this class weren’t necessarily new to me. I have had teachers before and during college who would teach class with similar themes. I loved the freedom it gave me then and I love it still. While ballet is a joy for me in many ways, it is also a constant struggle as I try to figure out why my body can’t execute what seems so simple in my mind. Exploring movement and finding out what can be beautiful and powerful without a specific technique in mind felt so liberating the first time I tried it, even though it was scary as all get-out, and it felt awesome to come back to that space. Particularly as an adult. I took different things away from the movement exploration than I did when I was younger and more concerned with what other people thought of me. I could relate more of it to my non-dance life and also see how this type of dance is not necessarily a distinct and separate entity from my ballet world, but that it’s a valuable addition that can enhance those more disciplined forms of dance.

I also loved that this was a totally accessible class. Yes, the room was filled with dancers. But there were many people in class that I knew do not consider themselves modern dancers in the least. You wouldn’t know from looking at the group who was a “modern dancer” and who wasn’t.

Honestly, you didn’t need to be a dancer of any sort to be able to do this class. Not really. The dance is in all of us whether we’re actively taking classes or performing on a stage or sitting in an office chair punching away at our keyboards wondering where our red stapler went. It’s a powerful realization.

So yes, that was the Pilobolus Experience. I was so grateful to our director for setting up the class and to Matt Del Rosario and Nile Russell for taking time out of their busy schedule to share their world with us. If you ever happen to see that they’re performing near you go see them and if you see that there’s a class, go take it! Don’t be afraid. You’ll be transformed, I swear.

Oh, but before we let them out of our sights we insisted on photos and they were kindly willing to oblige. So here’s one of me sandwiched between Matt and Nile… that giddy look on my face? Yeah, how could I not be thrilled to be surrounded by such handsome, kind, and talented men!

Pilobolus pic

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