Inspired by Ancient Sculpture and Creation Myths, Pilobolus's "On The Nature of Things"

Jul 23, 2014

Wearing little else but nude briefs, the dancers resemble heroic chiseled sculptures come to life in the tiniest of Edens.

Emerging from the shadows carrying a lifeless naked body, a primal-like figure takes a deliberate path in slow procession to center stage. When he finally arrives at the pool of white light, he lays down the load onto a jet-black pedestal, an altar of some kind; and this, his offering to someone, somewhere.

Soon, the limp form comes to life before its captor -- or perhaps, his creator.

“On The Nature of Things” is the newest work by those gods and goddesses of physical dance-theatre known as Pilobolus. Making its New York premiere at the Joyce Theater this past Tuesday, the piece is inspired by the ancient relief sculptures that were later re-imagined and shaped into marble during the Renaissance.

Taken from the epic poem by Lucretius, the Roman poet-philosopher from the first century BC, the piece's title forecasts a story about the seeds of life. The choreography reveals humankind’s awakening and natural pursuit of desire and pleasure. It also, as is the nature of things, leads to the fallout: jealousy, guilt, and rejection. It’s what used to be called original sin.

In describing the seeds of the project during their initial rehearsals in Connecticut this past January, executive producer Itamar Kobovy expanded on the performance concept. The idea was developed collaboratively by the entire company. "We thought we might try to tell, as many of those sculptures do, a human story," he said, "but a human story that’s also connected to some kind of myth, or fable, or creation story. We picked, roughly, the structure of the story of Adam, and Eve, and the serpent, as a story about 'three.'"

"On The Nature of Things"/Pilobolus
Credit Robert Whitman

On the Joyce stage, set under sparse, stark lighting, and played atop a contemporary version of a Roman pillar just three feet wide, three gifted dancers, Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern, Eriko Jimbo, and Nile Russell (at the performance I attended) give shape to a series of exploratory and tension packed interactions. Filling the house is a majestic operatic piece that seems to elevate their every twist, lift, and intimate tangle.

Wearing little else but nude briefs, they resemble heroic chiseled sculptures come to life in the tiniest of Edens.

That simple column is an important storytelling element. As the only scenic piece, other than light and a patch of floor, it becomes a pivot point of balance between the superb athletic dancer-actors, who move continuously as one in a rapturous, slow-motion dance.

The pattern of solo, duet, trio, duet, and solo also reveals a journey of fragile discovery, which soon takes a detour toward manipulation and conflict. Under the spell of the serpent, the male and female beings experience what it means to be alive.

Dancer Eriko Jimbo described the theme of "On The Nature of Things" as one of ignorance is bliss, at least until life experiences set in. 

"[It's] like that whole state of where you first don’t know anything, and everything is just exciting and new," Jimbo said. "You’re not sure what it is. Then you slowly figure out what it is, and then you have this [new] knowledge, and you can make your choices from there."

Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern and Eriko Jimbo in rehearsals for "On The Nature of Things."
Credit Mike Dunphy

The pillar and its human objects revealed becomes the pulpit from which we witness an arousing physical sermon about the balancing act required of relationships, newly discovered. Even the real estate on the tiny pulpit seems to shrink when man faces serpent in a sequence depicting a classic struggle about possession and control.

“The movements are inspired by wrestling statues,” Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern said. “Like a mythological Hercules and Antaeus, where these Greek gods and half god, they’re in these totally twisted contorted wrestling positions. It’s where the piece gets very physically difficult. Also, the speed increases, and the amount of space we are standing on does not increase!”

"All Is Not Lost"/Pilobolus
Credit Nadirah Zakariya

Pilobolus knows plenty about creative evolution. Deeply rooted in experimentation, dance improvisation and self exploration, those essentials after 43 years continue to inspire risk taking, like teeter-tottering on the edge of a column.

“On the Nature of Things” is a continuing statement about that very honest process -- the Pilobolus process. It’s also a creation story, a metaphor for the company’s artistic journey. It is certainly a message about doing something bravely, regardless of whether it will ever be cast in stone.

Pilobolus performs “On The Nature of Things” at the Joyce Theatre in New York July 15 through August 10. It runs in Program A with other pieces from the company’s repertoire. Program B features the New York premiere of “The Inconsistent Pedaler” in collaboration with fiction writer Etgar Keret and filmmaker Shira Geffen. Information: joyce.org or pilobolus.org.