Photo Credit: Robert WhitmanThis morning my friend, Joanne, forwarded me an obituary for Jonathan Wolken from the New York Times. Uff, I just wither when dance legends die, especially so young.
Although Pilobolus Dance Theater began in the year that I was born, I did not discover them until I attended the American Dance Festival in 1992. When I auditioned for the partnering class with two Pilobolus dancers, Jack Arnold and Carol Parker, I was oblivious. If someone had suggested to me that all 5 foot 4 inches of me could lift a 6 foot tall man, I would have cackled hysterically. And, I probably would never have enrolled.
That class obliterated my definition of myself as a dancer as it taught me how to leverage my weight. Watching Carol, who was tiny except for her very pregnant belly, flip people over or perch up on some one's back, thrilled me. At the end of the 6 weeks, I felt empowered physically and artistically. I am not sure if any other workshop has ever prompted such a transformation in me.
I never met Mr Wolken but I have told the story of how he founded Pilobolus to many kids, including all the boys in the Dover Sherborn High School musicals during my time there. As the New York Times so eloquently begins, "Jonathan Wolken, a nondancer who four decades ago helped found a dance troupe, named it after a fungus and watched gleefully as that troupe — Pilobolus Dance Theater — became one of the most popular modern-dance companies in the world." Seriously, how can anyone resist being inspired by such a story.
To this day, I still use Pilobolus' flocking exercises to begin my modern classes. Those three looks, three touches, three hugs turn students' focus onto the group as a whole. It gradually teaches them how to share weight. Through our conversations after the exercise, kids stumble onto metaphors about how to be a good partner, a concept that extends far beyond their time in the studio.
Thanks Mr Wolken for your indirect influence on my life and on my students. Your ideas will continue to ripple out for a long time.
(Also, I have long since lost touch with both Jack Arnold and Carol Parker. In those pre-email, pre-Facebook days, that was so easy to do even if you had the best intentions. If anyone knows them, please forward this post to them. This is obviously a tribute to their legacy as teachers as well.)