Out & About: Pilobolus Dance Theater opens Portland Ovations season

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A venerable regional arts presenter has a new name this season, and its first offering for 2009-2010 is a venerable modern dance company from the New England region. We’re talking about Portland Ovations, the new name for PCA Great Performances, and the terpsichorean troupe is Pilobolus, a Connecticut-based company that originated in New Hampshire.

Let’s also take a brief look at this fascinating dance company, plus some background info on Portland Ovations.

Blues singer Billie Holliday was a premier song stylist of the 1930s and 1940s. Think that’s all in the past? Think again. Sunny Crownover and her Joy Boys recall Lady Day and her contemporaries Oct. 9 at One Longfellow Square in Portland.


Pilobolus is a globetrotting modern dance troupe that’s especially noted for its groundbreaking imagination, extreme athleticism and utterly non-traditional approach to terpsichorean arts. The six-member company visits Merrill Auditorium this Friday as the first presentation of Portland Ovations’ current season.

That’s the big picture. But it’s smart to start any preview of Pilobolus by answering two smaller questions.

First is pronunciation of the odd name. Try “puh-LOBE-a-liss.”

Second is the meaning of the curious moniker. Pilobolus founders named it for a species of fungus that’s known for two qualities. The fungus grows in cow manure and explosively launches its spores into the air.

And that wry sense of humor has been one of Pilobolus’ signatures since its founding in 1971 in a dance class at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

Another interesting hallmark, pointed out by Ballet-Dance magazine writer Dina McDermott, is that the company founders had no formal background in dance, and therefore craft their art from a non-traditional perspective that’s much more approachable for general audiences.

McDermott explains: “There is no preparation or cultural underpinning needed to appreciate the choreography of Pilobolus. The group has been wildly successful, and seems to appeal most markedly to an audience with no preconceived ideas of what constitutes dance. Rather than using pre-defined steps or vocabulary – as does the Martha Graham Dance Company, for example – the choreographic process of Pilobolus has always been a group collaboration or improvisation.”

Pilobolus’ current touring group comprises four men and two women who promise a tour-de-force drawn from the company’s expansive repertoire of 85 works.

Friday’s performance will open with “Lanterna Magica,” which debuted in 2008. The full company immerses the audience in the luminous spirit of the natural world, drawing on ritual and mythology to create a sensual celebration of the supernatural. The otherworldly lighting evokes fireflies and fairies that lure their human charges through the dizzying acrobatic feats that are a Pilobolus hallmark.

A solo piece, “Pseudopodia,” calls to mind a tumbling tumbleweed, spinning across the floor to all-percussive music composed by original company members. It’s one of the company’s earliest works.

“Walklyndon,” another early creation, is a silent dance brimming with the physical humor of slapstick and vaudeville. Dancers jostle, bump, kick and flip one another in a laugh-filled romp across the stage.

Pilobolus will also revive a mid-career work, “Gnomen,” a classic men’s quartet that was first performed in 1997. The piece’s lyrical exploration of relationships is wrapped in an unusually inventive physical vocabulary.

Friday’s performance will conclude with the electrifying “Megawatt,” a full-throttle, full-company piece that offers an ironic take on the amped-up state of contemporary life and the volatile world in which we live.

Portland Ovations presents Pilobolus Dance Theater at 8 p.m. Oct. 9 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Portland Ovations

Portland Ovations? That’s the new name for a Port City arts organization that’s been around since 1931, when it was known as the Portland Concert Association. The name has changed several times over its 78-year tenure, but its mission hasn’t changed much. Portland Ovations exists to present globetrotting arts companies, such as Pilobolus, to southern Maine audiences. It specializes in several genres, including classical music, popular and world music, Broadway musicals, opera and dance.

I’ve been a regular attendee for nearly two decades, and Portland Ovations has appeared on this page more often than any other arts organization.

Portland Ovations’ executive director is Aimee Petrin, who arrived in Portland a few years ago from a similar arts organization in Burlington, Vt. Petrin has booked two other dance troupes this season: Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (March 20, 2010) and Aspen Santa Fe Ballet (May 5, 2010).

Classical music, the genre that Portland Ovations began with 78 years ago, gets five dates this coming season. Peter Serkin (Nov. 22) and the St. Lawrence String Quartet (March 16, 2010) are the best-known acts. Broadway gets two engagements. “Hairspray” (Jan. 28-29, 2010) and Neil Berg’s “100 Years of Broadway” (Feb. 13, 2010) are this season’s shows. Two operatic productions are on the calendar. Petrin has booked “La Boheme” (March 12, 2010) and “Porgy and Bess” (April 2, 2010).

Pop music and world music comprise the most numerous category. Los Lonely Boys & Alejandro Escovedo (Oct. 16) are the next offering, followed by the Yamato Drummers of Japan (Nov. 10), singer/songwriter Arlo Guthrie and Family (Nov. 20), Soweto Gospel Choir (Feb. 4, 2010), Maria de Barros (Feb. 20, 2010) and Philip Hamilton’s “Voices” (April 16, 2010).

Sunny and her Joy Boys

Guitarist Duke Robillard has traveled the world over for the last four decades, entertaining audiences with his special blend of blues and classic jazz. Ever inventive and resourceful, Robillard has a new project that’s been in the back of his mind since he heard Ivie Anderson, Helen Humes and Billie Holiday nearly 40 years ago – to celebrate the rich era of women song stylists from the 1930s through 1950s, ladies who brought poise and class to the great American songs of the time, and who interpreted the best lyrics of the American master songwriters with depth, sincerity and a personal flair that’s all but forgotten today.

That project recently came to fruition when he heard Sunny Crownover in Massachusetts. Robillard was immediately impressed with Crownover’s ability to phrase like Etta James, but sound uniquely like herself at the same time. “Her relaxed style and natural stage presence started the wheels turning,” he says. “I felt I had finally found the vocalist I had been hoping to discover for so many years.”

Simultaneously, Crownover wanted to work with Robillard, and the jazz guitarist wasted no time finding material and enlisting a crew of musicians. The result: Sunny and her Joy Boys was created. Catch this interesting new act Oct. 9 at 8 p.m. at One Longfellow Square (corner of State and Congress) in Portland. Call 761-1757.

Sidebar Elements

pnms-outabout-100709.jpgPilobolus is a modern dance company that opens the 2009-2010 season for Portland Ovations this Friday.