Pilobolus–San Rafael, CA

Written by:
John Sullivan
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Pilobolus Dance Theater: 40th Anniversary Tour Update and Interview

San Francisco Bay Area performance
Marin Center
San Rafael, California
Oct. 9, 2010
(other tour dates listed here:

Pilobolus company members warm up: Manelich Minniefee stands on Andrew Herro’s thighs.
Photo by John Kane

By the time Pilobolus Dance Theater completes its 2010/2011 season, it will have turned 40. As is true with most 40-year-olds, it is at the top of its game without needing glasses to read the small print.  In addition to the 100 dances in its repertoire, and a commitment to producing three new works per year, the company recently appeared on the Academy Awards, NFL halftimes, and Hyundai car commercials.

Pilobolus grew out of a dance class at Dartmouth in the early 1970s – when it was a guy’s-only school.  Named for an energetic fungus that was being researched in the biophysics lab of co-founder Jonathan Wolken’s father, this name would both reflect the troupe’s down-to-earth nature – they had little dance experience – along with its signature wit and often sophomoric physical humor. From the get-go, Pilobolus would be a highly creative, collaborative, improvisation adventure that would grow like a spore on the dance world, eventually leaving a significant mark on its host.

Today it is one of the most popular dance companies in the world, and a mega American cultural institution consisting of Pilobolus Dance Theater (two touring companies); Pilobolus Institute (educational programming); and Pilobolus Creative Services (movement services for film, advertising, publishing, commercial clients, and corporate events).  

What makes this particular tour significant for Pilobolus and the dance world, besides that it’s entering another decade, is the June passing of its creative genius and co-founder, Jonathan Wolken. This significant rite of passage caused Andrew Herro, who had left the company in December, to return in August as its rehearsal director.  Andrew is the Pilobolus archetype of being primarily an athlete (wrestler, football and tennis player) turned dancer, with a passionate commitment to keeping the company’s integrity and vision during this momentous transition.

David Moreno: Are you staying put or are you traveling with the company?

Andrew Herro: I just finished up with company in December and moved with my family back to Wisconsin. (But with Jonathan’s passing) I had to heed the call to come back and help the company out in this time. So, now I’m with the company when they are in the studio and when they head out on the road I head back to Wisconsin.

DM: How does a 40-year anniversary along with Jonathan’s passing impact the company as they leave for a world tour?

AH: It’s bittersweet. The company that has been created is… incredible, so we have Jonathan to thank for all of that, though we no longer have his creative mind to help lead us. Right now we are taking “Gnomen” (1997) out on the road, which was choreographed by Jonathan and Robby (Barnett) as a memorial for someone else. So that piece seems like his memorial as we head out on all these tours.

DM: Who will come forward into his role?  Is that an obvious transition or something that will unfold?

AH: I think it is certainly going to take some time to see where the company is going and how we are going to fill those shoes.  We’ve been kind of talking about this kind of situation for a few years actually.  We’ve been talking about how does the company transition and carry on once the directors either pass or decide that they don’t want to do it anymore.  So, we had been preparing for that and the idea of doing all of these collaborations (outside the company) and also bringing back dancers who had previously been with the Pilobolus. (For instance) we are doing “Contradance” (2010) that has former dancer Renee Jaworski performing.

DM: Do you think Pilobolus could have happened – the way it did in the ’70s – today, or was it a product of its generation?

AH: Yeah, I think it is a result of its generation but I think it has succeeded for 40 years as a result of the style… um, the way the company works… That collaborative aspect, the way we work together has allowed the company to evolve with the times because it’s the people of the era, of the current time, who really help to create the movement and create the work.  I feel we have a really solid structure that will allow us to go on even without the original directors as long as we stick to the principles of the company.

DM: Has Pilobolus experienced any new budget restrictions given where our country is financially?  Have any of the different aspects of the Pilobolus institution taken a hit?

AH: I’m not really privy to that information, but I do know that the last few years have made things more difficult to raise finances.  Fortunately, we are continuing to sell our shows and expand the ways we can accomplish our financial goals.  

DM: Certainly your exposure on the Academy Awards and TV commercials isn’t going to hurt any.  Because you are a cultural institution, it seems you would be able to bring in funds in a number of ways that other dance organizations are unable to do.

AH: Absolutely. We have quite a few projects that we are working on now that came out of that exposure… And, this affords us to pull revenue in outside of performances alone.

DM: Speaking of art and commerce, does Pilobolus spend time debating what is fine art versus what is commercial? Do you ever say, “That is way too commercial for us and were not going there”?

AH: Pilobolus has never been concerned about creating fine art! It started in a fashion of play and the company looks at different opportunities as different challenges to perform in rather than, “Is this our image, is this who we are?” (It’s more like) that sounds fun and interesting; do you think we can do that? This is how the shadow work came about. They said, “Hey, do you think you can make these images out of shadows?” And, the artistic directors said, “Well, we have never done it before but… Yeah, sure! We can do that!”  It’s not having fear of jumping into different aspects of performance.

DM: Clearly you appreciate and respect other artists, musicians, writers, and creative types, enough to work with them.  Is there a dancer/choreographer or dance troupe in particular that inspires you? Who do you turn to for “Wow!”?

AH: That would be different of course for everyone in the company, but recently we were compared with a Canadian company called La La La Human Steps. I had never heard of them so I looked them up and thought that the work that they do is absolutely incredible. It really pushes the limit of ballet since they are all classically trained. … They really push the limits on that genre.  

Otherwise, bringing back “Untitled” is a wonderful piece for our 40th. It’s just an amazing dance and I’ve been working really hard in the studio to bring back that original integrity of the piece. … There is just a quality to it that is missing from today’s society…

Otherwise, I don’t think we are grieving as much as we are celebrating and continuing on with the work we have. The main company has an enormous amount of work and has been working tirelessly in the studio for the past month bringing new dancers into the company. That’s what we are focused on – continuing the work, continuing on putting on great shows, and keeping Pilobolus going.

We had several memorials for Jonathan and what came up, again and again, was how he wouldn’t want us to mourn his passing but to celebrate his life.

DM: And, to eat! Right? Jonathan loved his food!

AH: And to eat, absolutely, to eat incredibly delicious food, in particular zabaione!

David Moreno

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