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The First Time I Saw Pilobolus

One of the main reasons why I set up this site has to do with the Pilobolus Dance Theater. I think the first performance I saw was in a large gymnasium at MIT. And I think I had heard about the company, vaguely, but at the time I had zero interest in modern dance and even less interest in paying for it. Luckily, this performance was free.

Pilobolus publicity photo by Michael O'NeilSince dance was not on my radar, I didn't remember much of the performance. However, I'm pretty sure that I saw Walklyndon, one of the troupe's signature pieces. Back then, some snobby critics didn't consider Walklyndon to be "dance" at all. There were no fancy leaps, no pirouettes. Just four guys walking back and forth from side to side of the stage, running into each other "accidentally," making fancy turns -- usually funny, almost like a circus performance by an artistically gifted quartet of clowns. The dancers wore skin-tight leotards, accentuated by huge, baggy boxer shorts. At one point, one fellow pulled down the boxers of another, and the kids in the audience howled with glee. Even kids -- especially kids -- appreciate how funny it would be to be caught without your trousers, even though in this case there was a leotard between the genitals and the audience.

In subsequent years, I read about Pilobolus every now and then. How they got a rave review from Arlene Croce, the dance critic for the New Yorker. How that helped make their reputation. How daring some of their new pieces were. About a wonderful piece whose title they argued over, so they compromised and called it "Untitled." Or, more precisely, "Untitled, 1979" -- presumably because there might be other "Untitled"s in their future.

The next time I saw Pilobolus, I had learned a lot about the arts. Something inside me had matured, and I found myself able to understand and appreciate plays like "A Streetcar Named Desire." When Pilobolus came to Boston, about 1983 to 1985, I decided to give them a try.

The performance took place in a medium-large theater in downtown Boston, and it was amazing. By that time all four of the male founders had retired -- their places having been taken by younger recruits -- and they had added two women to their troupe.

Their first piece had all 6 dancers appearing in such tight leotards that at first I wondered if they were nude. I would later joke that with my binoculars I could almost make out individual pubic hairs under their lycra "skins"! In another piece, all six dancers wore nothing but dance belts. (A dance belt, for those as undereducated in the ways of the dance world as I was at the time, is a broad elastic belt around the waist which acts as a supporter and cover in front and a buns-shaping thong in the back.) That meant the women were bare-breasted. Not that I paid much attention to them! The men's bodies were unreal: lithe, taut, and incredibly sexy. To see them in motion, I thought, was almost as good as seeing them nude.

Of course, secretly I was hoping that they would perform "Untitled." I was hazy enough about the Pilobolus performance pieces that I wasn't sure that this was the actual name. But they didn't perform it or any other nude items. As the final ovations continued, I felt delighted by what I had seen but also slightly disappointed.

I studied the program for the Sunday matinee I had just attended. There was a second performance Sunday night, but no indication whether the pieces to be performed were the same. Hmmmm.

I checked at the box office. Yes, indeed, the evening show was completely different. Yes, there was a piece called "Untitled" on the menu. Yes, there were single seats available, one in the second row.

I immediately plopped down another 20 bucks.

What followed was another delightful two hours. I was more interested in modern dance than I had imagined, and even though you wouldn't guess it from this account, it wasn't just the bodies that fascinated me. Pilobolus does unbelievable things with the human body, and it turns out that most of those things are fascinating.

The dance belts returned for another viewing. And then "Untitled" began.

It started out innocently enough. Two women and two men appeared on stage, all four wearing elaborate Victorian costumes. The men were wearing gray top hats and tails. The women were wearing very long, flowing white dresses. They danced around, in their beautiful Victorian style, and it seemed that the men were courting the women. Eventually the men were banished to the wings, and the women took center stage.

They danced freely and coquettishly -- I presume in a manner evoking Victorian schoolgirl amusements. They ran after each other in a circle, dresses flowing behind them. They leapt in the air. They jumped and twirled. Their jumps became longer and longer, as if they were almost flying.

Now keep in mind that I had just seen these same two dancers do incredible things. They were capable of making very long, very high leaps. I would have believed, without thinking much about it, that they were capable of almost anything. So I didn't think much of their long leaps until I was quite sure that they were physically impossible.

And then, as if to prove me right, suddenly the two women leapt exceptionally high into the air -- and stayed there. For the first time, the hems of their long white dresses left the ground. It turns out that the length of the dresses was about 50% longer than either woman was tall. Sticking out under each dress you could see a pair of hairy legs.

Hmmmm. It seems that the women were unnaturally tall because under each dress was a man. A man who had hidden there from the beginning of the dance!!

Only a truly modern dance company could have conceived of this little trick. How bold! How unsettling to notions of propriety and taboo! It took a special genius to think of the dance consequences of not assuming that the volume under a woman's dress was tabooed space -- space to be occupied only by a woman's "private" parts. There was nothing truly obscene or "violational" about this; the women were wearing leotards, after all. But the symbolism was unsettling -- and about to get more so.

After some more showing off, the women came back down to earth. Eventually the women made pregnancy motions, and their bellies grew. The growth was, of course, the head of the man under each dress, now poking out front. Soon the women stopped dancing, and stood next to each other facing the audience.

The women then began making birthing motions. The growths inside wiggled a bit, and eventually each man's head seemingly popped out the bottom of the dress. The women stood up, then walked slowly backwards. They thus revealed the two men lying on the stage, who were lying a few feet apart face up, heads pointing toward the audience.

When the two men stood up, suddenly everyone saw that they were nude. Totally nude. No g-string, no dance belt, no nothing! I was in awe. Astonished!

The men acted like babies for a bit, then danced around chasing each other and the women. I gathered that they eventually grew up to be the women's lovers.

My mind was racing every which way the rest of the dance. Wow! How did they get away with this! Well, it was obvious. Babies are born naked, so if you're going to "give birth" to a baby on stage, it would make sense for the babies to be naked. What about obscenity laws? Later I would learn that most obscenity statutes specifically permit on-stage nudity as part of a legitimate theatrical performance. In some cities, I later heard, the two men wear dance belts -- but the original staging calls for complete nudity.

The total effect on me was one of surpassing beauty. I was mesmerized. I had never seen anything so beautiful. By the end I was nothing more than a wet little puddle in my seat. If their Development office had hit me up for a donation right after that performance, I would have made them very, very happy.

Thinking about the performance on my way home, I got very, very angry. This was unexpected -- after all, I had just been delighted. But I wasn't angry at Pilobolus. of course. I was angry at the world -- for telling me for 35 years that naked men dancing was dirty. For saying that this surpassingly beautiful thing was shameful. For keeping such experiences from me, for lying about love and life. I thought, "Those goddam, fucking, idiotic, erotophobic assholes. How dare they! How dare they??"

That's the secret. It's a secret they keep so well they don't even know they're keeping it. Specifically:

So when the punk rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers performs in the nude, people may think that this is just because they want the publicity. That's probably partly true, but anyone who's ever danced nude themselves know that that's not the only reason. It might not even be the main reason. True, they're a bit more lowbrow than Pilobolus. But who ever said nudity was only allowed for the elite?

Dancing nude is supremely cool. Regardless of the size of one's genital equipment, it shows that you have the balls to see through society's lies and innuendoes. It shows that you think for yourself (even if you're imitating someone else), that you can take appropriate risks and win.

It's rad, it's a political statement, and it feels wonderful. What better recommendation is there?

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