Designing Dance

Field NotesThe Frontier

A quick note about this section

The creative process is one of constant discovery. You’re always looking for new ways of seeing, thinking and doing. Along the way, some things stand out and we put them in our Field Notes. This is a collection of ideas, places, people and things that we’ve found that we think are worth sharing and that all loosely fit within the theme of the issue.

Itamar Kubovy believes that ignorance can be a powerful ally. The Executive Director of Pilobolus, a New York based experimental dance troupe, constantly works to redefine the company and how they approach their craft. In recent years they have paired up with non-choreographers to push the practice forward, working with dance outsiders like illustrator Art Spiegelman and illusionists Penn & Teller.

Photograph by
Grant Halverson

“When you know someone with a great mind who knows nothing about something and then you expose the person to that thing , you’ll generally get a bunch of interesting questions coming from a new angle that… pushes a design process or creation process forward”, he explains.

As you talk with Kubovy, he sometimes sounds more like a creative director in a design firm than the executive director of a dance company. His process is iterative and collaborative. Pilobolus is known for its ability to entrance audiences even in this age of constant distraction. They have built a process for creating something at the frontiers of dance and movement.

pilobolus koro koro grant halverson

“I don’t know of any other way to describe it other than perhaps to say ‘play’, which is too often used inaccurately,” he says. “First of all, we bring a group of people that we have an enormous amount of faith in, both physically and intellectually, into a room. And we don’t really know what we’re going to do in that room other than look for things that interest the group. And we put a bunch of stimuli or irritants or sparks into that room and generate group activities that will explore particular aspects of what might be interesting or what might lead to a great idea.”. These ‘irritants’ might include a small platform for performance where dancers are forced to work in an extremely compact space. By applying constraints we hope to get to unrestrained thought. The dancers work through the challenge and others watch them. When they create choreography they like, they name it, put it on video, and move on in search of more.

Pilobolus is known for its ability to entrance audiences even in this age of constant distraction

At the beginning of all their work comes an iterative process. And it ends up taking a quarter of the time. That’s a difficult thing to accomplish being a non-profit where money is tight and performances are scheduled months in advance. But creating time for discovery is critical to Pilobolus’ work. “The fact of the unknown and the ignorance of the group, we believe, is a very important piece that allows us to do good work” explains Kubovy.

flyer john kane

Pilobolus gives creators just the smallest seed of an idea, nothing specific, just something that will spark a visual and verbal response. They try to provide something that will arouse a dialogue between mind and body. That conversation helps the team come to a greater grasp of what they want to make. “We generally believe in powerful images in search of a structure rather than beginning with a structure and looking for things to populate it with”, explains Kubovy. Two other constraints are time and money. For Pilobolus, those constraints are part of every work, and certainly impact the creative process. Kubovy believes that when the process is too structured it tends to focus too much on a singular vision. Instead, he believes that ‘the most exciting level of ownership and power of design comes from a kind of design that is discovered by a process rather than one that is premeditated or based on an idea of single authorship.’ He sees his role as ‘creating the conditions for the accidents that would allow a form and a design to emerge and then having the vigilance to hone it to something that can live on stage.’ For him, that is the central idea of Pilobolus’ artistic project. It’s not about ‘the idea of imagining a grand design and then translating it into action.’ It’s an idea of fundamental collaboration.

It was the collision of ideas from different worlds that they knew would lead to something different. And with the right people, the right kind of ideas would be made.

An example of this freeform mode of iterative discovery comes from Pilobolus’ collaboration with the comics guru, Art Spiegelman. They went to Spiegelman, because he is a master of an entire art form, having revolutionized the comic by using the form to write a historical memoir, Maus. Pilobolus always admired his visual depictions of idea through the distortion of the human body. They wanted to explore his understanding of the body again, but this time live, with dance. Kubovy remembers: “He said yeah, but I know nothing about dance’”. For Pilobolus, those were the right words. It was the collision of ideas from different worlds that they knew would lead to something different. And with the right people, the right kind of ideas would be made.

American Dance Festival 2011
American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/ADF 2011)

So they set out together working iteratively. But then things came to a standstill, literally. Spiegelman wanted the dancers to stand still for minutes at a time, thinking about them like the characters he had drawn in his comic books. The dancers, of course, wanted to move. Finally they couldn’t keep still any longer, and a new path had to be taken. Spiegelman couldn’t keep insisting that the dancers stay frozen, it just wouldn’t work. As they kept trying to stand still, Spiegelman started drawing into a Photoshop file, projected onto the stage over the dancers movements. In essence, he was dancing with them, but instead of wearing a form-fitting leotard, he was using a stylus. Later, an animation team was brought on to bring motion to the still work. But Spiegelman explained that everything he created was still, only suggesting movement. Yet everything Pilobolus did was based on movement. What seemed like a potential impasse because a productive tension created the work that would be titled: Hapless Hooligan in Still Moving.

Something as original as Still Moving couldn’t have come about without that stand still; without the clashing together of a multiplicity of people with differing creative backgrounds. That creative friction produced brilliance and something that could have never been planned.


At its core, Pilobolus is about communicating ideas through human movement, playfulness and transformation. It’s a form of communication that moves the audience emotionally. To get at this precise level of communicative movement, Pilobolus fosters a unique idea about leadership. They believe in a flat model that’s fluid and where “groups that work best are groups that really allow a person with a good idea to become a leader for a period of time while that idea is burning within them and in that leadership, to bring the rest of the group along.” And once the right time comes and things evolve, leadership is transferred to the next person with the new energy. Kubovy believes that this form of leadership is “something that really is a skill that, needs to be practiced by a group of people because in traditional hierarchies, there is an unbelievable number of roadblocks that… stop that from happening”.


By pushing the frontiers of movement, Pilobolus finds ways of impacting emotions in new, yet very human ways. Kubovy believes “that in the iterative search for efficiency lies grace and beauty… beauty is really the most efficient path.”

helping hands

Giving Out Helping Hands

The inception story of the nonprofit, e-NABLE, which is little more than a year old demonstrates what happens when strangers meet and collaborate, their collective skills creating something revolutionary. It all started when American Ivan Owen shared a video of a mechanical hand he had made for a Steampunk convention. Across the world, in South Africa, a carpenter named Richard Van As saw it as a solution to his plight. He had lost a few of his fingers in carpentry accident. He reached out to Ivan, asking for his help. Ivan agreed and together they went to work on creating a prosthetic.

Read More

the frontier tuque thumb

Our First Venture

Ventures Update is a recurring feature that tracks the progress of one of our own creative projects. The inaugural Venture is the design and development of a Canadian Icon: The Tuque.

Read More


Today’s Frontier

It's the hardness of the land that makes people soft. Newfoundland is an unforgiving landscape. It denies the pathetic fallacy, but at the same time reinforces an irrational love of the place.

Read More

robot dna thumbnail

Forming Robots From DNA

Fighting cancer effectively means attacking only the effected cells. DNA Robots seem to show great progress.

Read More

girls at lowline

Where There’s Sunshine Underground

Major cities are centres of construction. Condo after condo, new office towers, sports centres and more each take their own slice of the city, each evolving it and sharing it with their own footprint. Eventually, land runs starts to thin and we realize we've missed one important thing: public green space.

Read More

project row houses

The Not-For-Profit Sculpture

Rick Lowe was creating political art, works infused with messages of social change. This is not new. Many artists have done it. From the likes of Shepard Fairey to Eugene Delacroix.

Read More

ice cream thumb

Collaborative Ice Cream

Ice cream will never be the same. With flavours that include ‘Black Olive Brittle & Goat Cheese’, ‘Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons’ and ‘Toasted Coconut with Candied Macadamia Nuts’, an ice cream company is changing the way we think about this dessert. On Yelp, one customer wonders, “How do they pair such perfect flavours together?”

Read More

baxter robot thumbnail

The Humanity in a Factory Robot

Baxter is a red robot with two large arms and a screen featuring two eyes. "Not a week goes by when somebody doesn't comment to me”, told Jim Lawton, Chief Marketing Officer at Rethink Robotics, “‘Wow, I love working with your robot. They're so engaging and friendly and I just love the smile".

Read More

quotidian record and player

What Does Data Sound Like?

Brian House effortlessly flows from data to code, artistic expression, music, and back again. This intersection of skill and understanding lends uniqueness and exacting clarity to his art. It's evident that only someone of his multifaceted nature could come up with his work; he is an artist who is helping us feel data.

Read More

openrov thumb


In the early grades of school, we learn about explorers. We hear about their journeys: how they traversed the Atlantic, pushed through heavy North Pole snow and planted their feet on new soil for the first time.

Read More

align thumb


Reimagining something familiar is one of the most ambitious things a designer can do. The chair is one of the most difficult of all. Despite the diversity of chairs out there, how can you improve on the basic design?

Read More

seaboard by computer


One such instance is the Seaboard. What first looks like a wonky George Foreman grill turns out to be a musical keyboard. But unlike traditional pianos, all its keys are black and, even more unusual, they are made out of a malleable material. That makes the keys soft and creates a continuous playing surface. This […]

Read More

robotic printer thumb

Mini Mobile Robotic Printer

Jonathan Stein noticed something about printers. The ubiquitous devices that sit on our desks were, in fact, quite simple. In effect, he realized that it was just a box that moved from side to side and “printed” the document.

Read More

Ototo thumbnail


Kids these days. They play on iPads and iPhones tapping on fake birds in slingshots and skeuomorphic drums. Adults might lament and wonder if kids are gaining anything from all that tapping. Whatever happened to turning a cardboard box into a car?

Read More

plumen 002

Plumen 002

“Don’t you think it’s strange”, comments Nicholas Roope, Founder and Design Director at Plumen, “that the lightbulb, an object so synonymous with ideas, is almost entirely absent of imagination?”

Read More

estimote stickers

Estimote Stickers

We’ve all heard of wearables, but nearables might be the next device that empowers your life.

Read More

map notebook

Best Made Map Notebook

Here’s a question: are you still discovering a neighbourhood if Google Maps is acting as your real-time guide?

Read More

myo thumb


“No, you can’t be Magneto.” What a 20th century thing to say. The creators of Myo may have brought that power one step closer.

Read More

an american diary

An American Diary

In the Summer of 2014, Anthony Gerace embarked on road trip across America, armed with a map and 2 film cameras—a Hasselblad c/m 500 and a Yashica T4. What he captured on his journey feels both entirely familiar and strangely foreign. That combination felt like a perfect fit as we were gathering content for this first issue of Field Guide.

Read More

power of frontiers

The Power of Frontiers

It was as a 27­year­-old news reporter that I found myself in one of the most remote communities on earth, seeking out a few of the most adventurous, downright badass guys anywhere.

Read More