Definition: “Pilobolus-A fungus with explosive spore dispersal that feeds on the feces of grazing animals. Also known as “hat-thrower” fungus.” And— a beloved dance company that sprung into Durham in 1978, when the American Dance Festival relocated from Bennington, Vermont to make our home it’s home. The ADF and Pilobolus have been intriguing audiences and inspiring students ever since.
What makes this mysterious fungus among us endure, when many other dance companies have come and gone over the years? What do viewers and students expect from Pilobolus? From ourselves? How has it grown? How have we grown? After the premier of Shadowland on June 17 at DPAC, audience members and dance students shared their impressions.
“Pilobolus shows us how to move together in a warm balance,” said Valeria Herrera, a first-time ADF student who studies dance at Sacramento State College, along with fellow ADF students Sean Ong Tran and Dennzyl Green.
“Their bodies are toned, but I see it as more about connections. Learning how to depend on your partners. Building trust,” she added.
Sean Ong Tran said , “My favorite part of dance is learning how to hold yourself up. And hold up your partners. Pilobolus uses a variety of lifts. When you dance together, you become partners. You support each other.”
Dennzyl Green mostly agreed with Sean and Val, though his perspective was a bit different: “We were inspired to help each other as a combo The lifts were cool. The shapes were amazing. But I was waiting for a break. It was too long.”
For Val, Dennzyl, and Sean, seeing Shadowland was their first time watching Pilobolus perform. Several other audience members had viewed Pilobolus over the years, and shared their impressions.
“They had the same defined shapes and athleticism. I liked the screens and shadows. And the variety of music. The multimedia approach made it more magical. A lot of surprises,” said Ann, who has seen Pilobolus every year since the arrival of ADF.
To Richard, another lover of Pilobolus over the years, “Shadowland had a dream-like narrative. It began with innocence. A white dress. A young woman. A self, struggling with identity through dangers and growth. I thought there was a bit too much screen use. And I wish there had been two shorter pieces. But I still really liked it.”
Angel, another viewer, had a seat near the edge of the performance center, a perfect vantage point for observing the dancers at play behind the screens, creating the shapes that appeared as dramatic shadows, watching them improvise acrobatically over the entire stage.
Another audience member, Laura, recalled that the mission of the founders of the American Dance Festival, including Martha Graham, was to emphasize experimentation, improvisation, and dance collaborations with other media. Choreographers worked with sculptor Alexander Calder and musician John Cage. So, in this sense, Shadowland was going back to the roots of ADF.
ADF student Val Herrera shared that during their classes, students asked members of Pilobolus what the company was looking for at auditions. The answer was “improvisation.” Val was amazed when she was told that you don’t have to be toned and athletic to get into the company. The “defined” body shape is a result of years of collaboration and improvisation, not a requirement from the start. Some of the members of the troupe were once scrawny-but they were great at improvising!
Pilobolus may be amazing, but what’s more amazing is the culture propagated by dance students like Val, Sean, and Dennzyl. Pilobolus is known for its explosive spores. These students, like many others, are proliferating through collaboration and mutual support- in studios and stages and life. As a trio, Val and Sean and Dennzyl have lifted each other in classes, traveled around the country for auditions, lived together in student housing. They root for each other in auditions, and applaud each other’s successes-even if they don’t all succeed in the same way.
Recently, the ADF had its auditions for Footprints, the end of July student performance which is open to the public. Dennzyl got in. Val and Sean didn’t, but they were eager to say how happy they were for Dennzyl. They know that even as collaborators, they each have a unique history and a unique path. Sean was raised on a farm in central California, the oldest of five children with a single mom. He began dancing at Six Flags as a “getaway” from the farm work at home. His life is still full of challenges and responsibilities. And at ADF, as in life, he wants to learn everything and push himself to the limits. Dennzyl began dancing at church. His mom encouraged him to take ballet, and he still loves contemporary ballet and all kinds of modern dance. He’s open to everything, and doesn’t feel like he has to part of a big company, as long as he can have a career in dance. When I asked Dennzyl how he felt during his solo for Footprints, he said he couldn’t remember anything except being “absorbed in the moment. Forgetting himself.” Like Dennzyl, Val began with encouragement by her mom to do ballet. Her mom is a domestic worker and wanted her to stay busy and out of the streets. It was either dance or soccer, and she “chose not to be the typical Mexican. I wanted to dance.” To Val, seeing performances like Pilobolus and being a part of ADF is all about growing, becoming a more well-rounded dancer and person. She loves all kinds of modern dance: afro, jazz, ballet…
Seeing a performance like Shadowland inspires us ALL to keep growing, just as Pilobolus has grown over the years. Here’s hoping the local Kudzu doesn’t overtake it-we’ve got enough greenery. Let’s hear it for the shades of summer!