Nile Russell was one of 500 hopefuls when he auditioned for the award-winning, avant-garde dance company Pilobolus in 2009. He had been in New York City for a few years already, had danced with several small companies, and had started one of his own. He was looking for a new avenue for his creativity, a means of digging deeper for a voice to express what he wanted to say through movement. The directors painstakingly winnowed down the prospects over the course of several months, and Russell was one of two men chosen to join the company that year.
"When I saw all the dancers auditioning I was already packing my bags mentally," he told City in an interview last week. "I was floored when I eventually made it into the company. It's been the biggest challenge of my life, and the most rewarding."
Russell says that the Pilobolus audition process mirrors the company's collaborative creative process. When he auditioned, it began with large group, loose choreography (run, jump, turn) to see how the dancers moved through space. Then it went on to short, individual improvisational exercises, and then to combining bits of that improv work with those of other dancers. Eventually, a handful of these dancers were selected to take summer workshops at the company's home base in Washington Depot, Connecticut. And then finally the final cuts.
"Pilobolus is about mining your creativity — physically, intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally," Russell says. "We're always pushing toward something new, whether it works or not. We take a road until the path is no longer there."
Thirty-one years old and a native of Baltimore, Russell is now a dance captain with Pilobolus, a liaison between the company and its directors. He schedules rehearsals, teaches master classes, and otherwise ensures that things are running smoothly both on and off the road. This Saturday, he will perform in four of the pieces that Pilobolus will present at Nazareth College Arts Center. It is the third time that the company has performed at Nazareth; the other two shows sold out.
Pilobolus bills itself as a dance company, but falls into that crossover zone between dance and theater because of its inclusion of gymnastics, shadow play, video imaging, juggling, magic, and other elements. The dancers' movements are extreme — high octane, daring, and athletic. Company members have to possess great strength and flexibility to execute the moves. The group is known for the high level of physical interaction between dancers. They intertwine their bodies so intimately that it is often difficult to gage where one body ends and another begins. They create unlikely human sculptures then rebound out of them with super-powered energy.
Darren Stevenson, co-founder and director of local group PUSH Physical Theatre, has collaborated with Pilobolus members in workshop situations. He spoke to City recently about the way the company has impacted dance.
"Pilobolus was pooh-poohed by the dance world for a long time," Stevenson says. "In a lot of classical people's minds, it wasn't dance. PUSH gets the same thing. We're not really dance and we're not really theater. People try to put you in a box. I think Pilobolus' genius is that they were able to drop all their own perceptions of what dance should be and begin from the ground up."
One of the pieces to be performed this weekend, "Ocellus" (1972), is the second work the company ever created (its repertoire now includes more than 115 pieces) and incorporates close contact between a quartet of men, Russell being one of them. This connecting of bodies to create new forms was something that was largely unexplored in the dance world until Pilobolus headed down that road. (By the way, program notes warn that the performance "may contain nudity." "May" refers, apparently, to personal interpretation of the word "nudity." In any case, this is the work that may or may not contain it.)
"Licks" (2013) also has me curious. Publicity photos from this work show a woman dancer looped, bondage style, with rope, and the piece is described as sexy, fantastical and full of hijinks. Sounds like fun to me. Russell says that it is his favorite piece to perform, and explains that the intent is for the rope props take on a life of their own, so to speak.
"How do we give them life, energy? The hope is that the ropes aren't seen as being held by us in the end, but have come to life," Russell says.
Stevenson offers his own audience advice for viewing Pilobolus' work: "Audiences should keep in mind that although what they do looks difficult already, it is actually so much more difficult than it even looks. So much harder than you would think. Insanely difficult."
Pilobolus was founded in 1971, the unlikely brainchild of a group of Dartmouth College students with little dance background. The group's name comes from a fungus that grows on cow dung and propels its spores with extreme strength speed and accuracy. By 1977, Pilobolus was performing on Broadway in limited engagement at the St. James Theater. Arlene Croce of The New Yorker called the members "six of the most extraordinary people now performing."
Today, Pilobolus artistic directors Renee Jaworski and Matt Kent are the faces of the company, creating alongside original founder Michael Tracy. Pilobolus has given more than 5,000 performances in more than 64 countries, and appears regularly on television. Appearances include the 2007 Academy Awards, "60 Minutes," "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," "Sesame Street," and "Oprah." The company is also adept at commercial application of its movement design and production. Its television spots include commercials for Mobil, Ford, Toyota, Procter and Gamble, and an Emmy-nominated spot for the NFL Network. Pilobolus is even in the Guinness Book of World Records for fitting the most people into a Mini Cooper.
Among the numerous prizes and awards Pilobolus has been awarded, the 2010 Dance Magazine Award for lasting contribution to the field of dance stands out. Never before had the magazine honored a collective rather than an individual, a fitting tribute for a company that is based on creating through an innovative group creative process.
"All choreography, all movement is from the bodies of the dancers," Russell says. "It is created through improv, theater work, playing around in the studio. The directors are driving the cars with the original ideas, but we create the landscape they drive through."
Saturday, March 8 | Callahan Theater, Nazareth College Arts Center, 4245 East Ave. | 8 p.m. | $50-$65 | 389-2170, artscenter.naz.edu