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.

spiegelman

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”.

seaweed

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.”

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