Pilobolus steps back into the spotlight at Penn State

Pilobolus’ “Shadowland” features multiple screens, strategic lighting and a play on perspectives to create a unique, silhouetted stage event.
Pilobolus’ “Shadowland” features multiple screens, strategic lighting and a play on perspectives to create a unique, silhouetted stage event. Photo provided

The Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State will put a spotlight on American dance-theater troupe Pilobolus on Oct. 18, for the company’s first Penn State performance since 2012.

Pilobolus’ “Shadowland” — a collaboration among Pilobolus dancers, “SpongeBob SquarePants” creator Steven Banks and musician-composer David Poe — tells the coming-of-age story of a girl wandering through an abstract dreamscape and discovering who she was born to be. The production features multiple screens, strategic lighting and a play on perspectives to create a unique, silhouetted stage event. Pilobolus Founding Artistic Director Robby Barnett will be the featured speaker in a post-performance discussion with audience members.

Pilobolus was founded by a group of Dartmouth College students in 1971. Barnett, co-founder and artistic director of Pilobolus, grew up in a little town in the Adirondacks, about an hour from the Canadian border. He took a dance composition class in his last year of college and met Moses Pendleton, an English literature major and cross-country skier; Jonathan Wolken, a philosophy science major and fencer; and Steve Johnson, a pre-med student and pole vaulter. In that class, they created their first dance, which they titled “Pilobolus” — and together they decided to start a dance company.

“We didn’t even know what dance was, but it seemed better than graduate school at the time,” Barnett said. “We basically invented a little circus and then ran away and joined it.”

The four young men made a couple dances and then got on the telephone and tried to convince people to hire them.

“Every now and then we’d find someone who would pay us to come and dance, and it always worked out pretty well,” Barnett said. “People would encourage us and so we would do more of it. We got quite a bit of support early on.”

Pilobolus is named after a phototropic fungus that Wolken’s father was studying in a lab at the time of the company’s inception. The fungus grows on cow dung and propels itself with extraordinary strength, speed and accuracy.

“Jonathan grew up in Pittsburgh, and his father was a biophysicist at Carnegie Mellon,” Barnett said. “Jonathan spent his high school years working in his father’s laboratory, and one of the things that he worked with was ‘pilobolus.’ Pilobolus is a uniquely energetic, outdoorsy, adventurous, little fungus — and it seemed like a good thing to name our company after.”

Pilobolus was an unusual group at that point, as a four-man dance company was not the normal constituency 1971-72.

“I think people were curious about what they were going to see,” Barnett said. “We had a lot of support right from the start and it kept us going. I think if people had said it was ridiculous we probably would have stopped and looked for some other way of making a living.”

Pilobolus has long been based in Washington Depot, Conn., with offices in New York City and Belgium. The company tours domestically and internationally, performing works from its more than 100-piece repertory as well as new pieces, created at a pace of about two per year.

Pilobolus has performed more than 100 choreographic works in more than 64 countries around the world, and has been featured on the Academy Awards, The Oprah Winfrey Show and Late Night with Conan O’Brien.

In 2006, Pilobolus created a TV advertisement for Hyundai that featured the company’s dancers assembled into the shape of a car using a single light source and a screen. A few months later, the troupe again employed the technique when it recreated iconic film images for the 79th annual Academy Awards TV broadcast. Out of those creations came a new style of shadow-theater — “Shadowland.”

A few years ago Pilobolus became interested in how to make hand shadows — something most people first discovered as kids.

“We’ve discovered that it’s extraordinarily simple to make a shadow — you need a bright light and a reflecting surface,” Barnett said. “Over the last few years we’ve made a couple shows using shadows. That’s been an interesting avenue of exploration.”

In essence, Pilobolus is live theater that makes things with bodies, with its primary focus on how humans can do things in front of you.

“In our digital universe, theater has become sort of an endangered species — it’s expensive to produce and perform,” Barnett said. “Following through on our history, I think we’ve come to feel that we’re performing not just entertainment, but a service to the performing arts as a whole by staying live.”

Pilobolus is a deeply collaborative effort, and Barnett said they ask a lot of their performers, both in the depth of their imagination and also in their patience.

“Collaboration is not an efficient way of making things, but it’s broad and it’s deep, and we need people who are willing to go in both directions,” Barnett said. “We spend a lot of time together and we want people who basically we can eat dinner with as well as work in the studio with. We really do work and play together at the same time.”

Barnett likes to feel that the company’s shows can draw diverse audiences, from young kids to parents. Now in its 45th season, Pilobolus is seeing people bringing their grandchildren to their performances.

“These are people who came to see Pilobolus themselves as kids,” he said. “We want to have as many young people in our audience as possible because I think we want to feel that live theater has some new generations of people who understand it. There’s a certain effect from watching living, breathing people do something that is simply not reproducible onscreen.”

Nothing compares to actually being in a room and listening to somebody sing, and Barnett thinks the same thing is true with dance.

“Dance is something that is particularly difficult to film well,” he said. “And the impact of watching people dance is quite amazing. I’d like to think that a lot of younger people are coming to see it.”

The “Shadowland” performance includes nudity.


  • What: Pilobolus’ “Shadowland”
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 18
  • Where: Eisenhower Auditorium, University Park
  • Info: www.cpa.psu.edu