On a recent afternoon at the historic town hall in rural Washington, Conn., where the contemporary dance company Pilobolus rehearses, the scene oozed idyllic, New England charm. Sunlight flooded the room, illuminating the white clapboard walls and rafters.
The dancers, on the other hand, exuded an aura a bit more south of the border. They crisscrossed the floor in pairs, gliding through the measured steps of the Argentine tango, a distinct change of pace for a company known for its abstract ensemble pieces.
They were rehearsing the newest collaborative Pilobolus piece: “Skyscrapers,” choreographed by Trish Sie and the company’s associate artistic director, Renee Jaworski, based on a music video for the song of the same name that Sie choreographed for the rock band OK Go.
Sie, 40, first worked with Pilobolus a year ago on the video for OK Go’s “All Is Not Lost.” Her brother, Damian Kulash, is the band’s lead singer (she has choreographed five videos for OK Go), and the siblings’ love for Pilobolus goes back to their childhood days at the Interlochen arts camp in Michigan, where they saw the company perform.
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“At the time I think all I’d studied dancewise was ballet,” Sie said by phone from Los Angeles recently. “They became this pinnacle of: ‘Whoa, dance on steroids! That’s where you take what you’ve learned and turn it into something completely new.’ ”
When she and Kulash met the Pilobolus team, they learned the admiration was mutual. Itamar Kubovy, Pilobolus’ executive director, said that he and the company’s artistic director, Robby Barnett, had admired the band’s work, which “has been, more often than not, really fresh and clever from a choreographic point of view.” The band consistently uses creative movement in its videos. Its best known, for the song “Here It Goes Again,” features the four band members dancing on and off a set of treadmills.
Working on the “All Is Not Lost” video (in which Pilobolus dancers starred) Sie, Kulash and the Pilobolus team found “a sense of affinity between them and their music world and us and our dance world,” Kubovy said. Sie, in particular, seemed an ideal Pilobolus collaborator.
“Trish is someone I wish lived down the block from me as well as somebody who has really good ideas and doesn’t think of herself as a dancer or a choreographer or a director,” Jaworski said. She’s a maker, a doer.” She shared a key creative philosophy with Pilobolus.
“One of the main things we all have in common is at first you try not to make decisions,” Sie explained. “You say yes to a lot of things. You just play.”
A couple of months ago Sie sent Pilobolus the video she created for “Skyscrapers.” The video features Sie and the dancer Moti Buchboot, with whom she slowly tangos across a string of rainbow-colored street backdrops in Los Angeles. The duo’s costumes change colors with each frame, seemingly seamlessly.
Kubovy was immediately struck by how “the formal treatment of the colors had so much story in it,” he said. “It was mysterious: What was evocative about it? Was it one couple in a million different situations, or over the course of a long time, or different people in different situations? Without even knowing, it just felt kind of emotional.”
He was also intrigued by the physical challenges involved. “How the hell would we do this in a live context?” he asked. The combination of those elements convinced him and Barnett that the work was worth translating to the stage.
As in Sie’s video, the “Skyscrapers” Pilobolus performs features a backdrop of quickly shifting, live street scenes (projected on a giant screen) and a procession of dancers in vividly colored outfits. The dance, Jaworski said, is “Pilobolized.” Once the dancers felt at home in the classical form, “we were then able to change it up: where the leader is dictating, when the follower can kind of vamp,” Jaworski added. Twists on the classic tango sneak in — one couple is two men, one of whom wears a dress and is dragged across the stage at one point — along with more Pilobolus-like moves, like a dip that drops a dancer, face-first, perilously close to the floor.
Sie embarked upon five days of teaching tango to the Pilobolus dancers. Though she has extensive ballroom experience, Sie herself hadn’t learned classic Argentine tango until last year, when Buchboot, whom she met on a shoot for a commercial, taught her.
The challenges for Pilobolus were both physical and mental. Though in its work the company explores weight sharing, which is also an intrinsic element of tango, that usually involves “knowing where your center is,” Sie said. Tango “demands the opposite: just relax, stop.” The dancers, she said, were tighter in their legs, shoulders and arms than tango dancers, who balance looseness with cool control. “It’s ‘less is more,’ subtlety, connecting in a very stripped-down way,” Sie said.
Barnett and Jaworski also embraced the chance to try the quick changes necessary to keep the video’s spool of colored costumes alive. Some practical solutions eased the way: one-piece, zip-down outfits masquerading as separates, wraparound dresses easily torn off. Still, that day in Connecticut, when the dancers ran “Skyscrapers” with costumes for the first time, several emerged half-clothed (and often laughing hysterically). Kubovy said he hopes that “the calmer and more focused this tango is live,” the more the audience will “imagine the most insane chaos that has to happen to get you there.”
At Sie’s behest the dancers always start “Skyscrapers” rehearsals with a milonga, or social tango meeting. Sie hoped these would let them “forget we’re performers for just a second,” she said. “I think that was really hard. All of a sudden you’re not worried about, ‘Does this leg line look pretty?’ You’re more concerned about: ‘Have I just done what you asked me as my partner to do? Have I followed your lead? Are we thinking the same thought?’ That’s a very different feeling from, ‘Does this work 300 rows back?’ ”
For the first five hours of the first rehearsal “everybody was pulling their hair out,” the dancer Jun Kuribayashi said. “The sixth hour something clicked. We started to understand it wasn’t just the technique but the essence behind it, the fire, the communication between two people. And that’s something we understand very well.”