Pilobolus Maximus Tests the Limits of Dance at Guild Hall

Pilobolous performs during the American Dance Festival at DPAC in Durham, N.C. on Friday, Jun. 30, 2017. A scene from "Echo In The Valley." Ben McKeown photo
Pilobolous performs during the American Dance Festival at DPAC in Durham, N.C. on Friday, Jun. 30, 2017. A scene from “Echo In The Valley.” Ben McKeown photo

By Michelle Trauring

Standing outside the Washington Club on a typical Monday morning, it would feel peaceful and idyllic, the wind rustling the leaves outside the old converted barn in Connecticut.

It would be impossible to guess what was going on inside.

There, arms, legs and hands intertwine. Minds, eyes and breath connect. Bodies support each other, at times becoming one.

But it’s not what it sounds like. This is Pilobolus, a modern dance company that has created movement through human art for the last 30 years, which they will bring to Guild Hall in East Hampton on Saturday night.

“We’re a dance company that bases itself in human contact, which is why all of our shapes and forms deal with weight sharing and balances and becoming living sculptures,” according to Creative Director Mark Fucik. “It’s about learning how to feel someone’s weight through their body and through your body and finding your center of balance. It’s not only a technique about movement, it’s a technique about communication.”

It begins with the basics. At the start of every workweek, they roll out the Marley dance floor together and set up the sound system as a team before rehearsal. After a 45-minute warm-up at 9 a.m. sharp, the daily schedule on the wall guides them, either choreographing new routines through improvisation, or working on existing movements. They break for lunch at 1 p.m. and continue dancing until 5 p.m.

The dancers in the rotating stable of about 20 — seven of whom will perform on the East End — hail from all different backgrounds. Some have danced since they were 3 years old, while others have intense athletic training, experience in martial arts, or theater backgrounds. They discover dance later in life, as was the case for Fucik, who joined the company in 2001.

Mark Fucik

“It’s a crazy learning experience. You are sore 24/7 for your first year. They call it ‘Pilobolus Polio,’” he said. “For my first month, I would roll out of bed and crawl for a little bit before I could stand up and go to the bathroom. You pretty much live on ibuprofen.”

The eight-hour rehearsals are long, grueling and both physically and emotionally, Fucik said. The sheer exhaustion brings the dancers together, too, not to mention the nature of the movements themselves.

“It’s a very intimate relationship, to say the least,” Fucik said. “People say, ‘Your face is right in their butt,’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, it is,’ but at the same time, that’s not what we’re thinking about. We’re thinking about what the sculpture is going to look like, with the imagery we’re creating. Yeah, my head might be in your butt, but there are other things to be looking at for us.”

The movements are part of a larger whole that each tell a story, he said. The first piece that will be performed at Guild Hall — “On The Nature of Things” — is “classic Pilobo-lean,” he said, with a statuesque fight between three dancers, balanced on a two-foot wide column rising above the stage, representing good and evil.

The mood shifts with “Transformation,” which centers on a teenage girl longing for independence who, when she wakes from her sleep, finds adventure within her own shadow on her bedroom wall. It is a funny and heartwarming piece that pushes the audience to see and think as a child would, Fucik said, and it is done almost entirely in shadow.

The journey continues with a piece about resilience and hope through hardships called “Echo In The Valley,” before ending with a nostalgic piece, “Rushes,” that is both humorous and odd. One minute, Fucik finds himself laughing, and the next he’s missing home, he said.

“We always like taking people on a roller coaster,” he said. “The third piece, ‘Echo in the Valley,’ is a brand new piece we just premiered down at the American Dance Festival last week. It’s a collaboration we did with Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, who are incredible musicians. They wrote the music based off our interaction with them and watching what we do. And we even based some of our movements off of Abigail, who does clogging.”

The Pilobolus dancers watched Washburn in their Connecticut studio, and worked with what they saw. During rehearsal, they also inspire one another, improvising in pairs until they have a new repertoire of movements in their signature style.

“With us, we have to be able to communicate through our bodies the way I would grab your hand or your arm, and if I lean to the right or the left, what I’m going to be doing. And you have to be able to respond to that and listen to that,” Fucik said. “That’s why it’s so hard and a difficult technique. It’s almost like, if we were moving together, I would be the left leg and you would be the right leg.”

At the end of every workweek, the dancers roll up the Marley, shut down the sound and leave as a family, some back to their lodging in the tiny town while the rest head home to New York, just two hours away.

It is a routine Fucik has come to love over the last 16 years.

“It has a special place in my heart. It’s trees and streams and lots of bugs. It’s pretty much wilderness. If you drive through and you sneeze, you’ll miss it. I swear to God, you will have missed the entire tiny town of Washington Depot,” he said of the company’s headquarters, which also served as the inspiration behind Stars Hollow in the television series, “Gilmore Girls.”

“When I’m back in the city, I like going to see the ballet,” he continued. “It’s beautiful, they’re technically great and they can do some amazing things. But sometimes you look at the core and they seem so disconnected from each other. We are not like that. We’re so intimate in the way we’re tactile and have to hold each other up and support each other, and it gives us that automatic relationship between the dancers.”

That is what makes them unique, he said. That is what makes them Pilobolus.

“Pilobolus Maximus: Beyond the Limits of Dance” will stage on Saturday, July 15, at 8 p.m. at Guild Hall in East Hampton. Tickets range from $45 to $100, or $43 to $95 for members. For more information, call (631) 324-0806, or visit guildhall.org.