For the artists of Pilobolus, dance is a universal language for everyone.
The world-renowned, shape-shifting dance troupe will close Akron's Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival on Friday and Saturday with their "Pilobolus Big Five-Oh!" tour, a remixed retrospective of dances celebrating the modern dance company's half century of "radical creativity."
"We believe that dance, because it's a universal language, everybody can relate to it," said co-artistic director Matt Kent. "There's no preparation for this show. You don't need to have a cultured background in dance or anything. You just come with an open mind."
Kent said the six-member troupe is looking forward to performing outdoors in Akron's Goodyear Heights Metro Park on its 50th anniversary tour, which it's been doing over the last year. That's more fun for the performers than a "hermetically sealed," dark box of an indoor theater, he said.
"What's so neat about being outside is you feel the same breeze that's fluttering the costumes of the dancers and you're all kind of in this world of make believe together," Kent said by phone in late July from the company's base in Washington, Connecticut.
Pilobolus, named after a barnyard fungus, has wowed audiences with its legendary approach to modern dance with shadow play everywhere from the Oscars to the Olympics. Less than two weeks after the Akron appearance, the troupe will do its famed 2009 "Shadowland" dance in Saudi Arabia, where it will perform for the third time.
The company, which last performed in Northeast Oho in Cleveland with "Shadowland," will bring three tech crew members to Akron, including Kent State University graduate Max Jabara, who's the deck manager in charge of stage operations.
At the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival, the troupe will show audiences some of the magic behind its shadow play, done in silhouette behind a translucent screen, with the 2021 piece "Behind the Shadows." In this dance, Pilobolus has put its screen on wheels so it can be moved to reveal how the dancers' connected bodies form the cool shapes behind the screen.
"When the screen's put back in front, you're like ,'Holy [cow]! That's an elephant? That's a seahorse?' " Kent said.
"It's a fun little treat, this piece, that will put a smile on your face."
Exertion and control
The family-friendly Akron performances will start with the awe-inducing balancing act in the classical "On the Nature of Things," which has three dancers performing on a 3-foot plinth, or platform.
The dangerous piece, which has dancers hanging off the platform, is inspired by an Adam and Eve kind of creation story and the concept of constraint.
"Regular people wouldn't want to even stand on this thing together, let alone lift each other up. It's crazy," Kent said.
"On the Nature of Things" will be performed first on the program, before the dancers are dripping with sweat, so they can push their physical feats even further.
"If we do it first, we can take more risks," the dancers told Kent.
Next on the program is the world premiere "The Ballad," which Pilobolus created in partnership with Darlene Kascak of the Schaghticoke tribe, who works at the Institute for American Indian Studies close to Pilobolus in Connecticut. The dance incorporates her storytelling about the mythic, cannibalistic Wendigo monster, which has become a symbol of excessive greed, as well as Kascak's own creation story as a Native American.
The message of the dance is "we have to take care of the earth and everyone on it so that we can take care of ourselves," Kent said. "I can't wait to share this piece with more audiences."
Variety of dances
Much of Pilobolus' work on its Big Five-Oh tour is about nature. Another selection, the 2017 "Branches" was first designed to be performed outdoors. The dance, which is all about paying attention to nature, was created through improvisation after the dancers put their phones in a bag and went outside for a morning hike.
"There's a lot of sounds of nature and different ways of having a dialogue with nature," Kent said. "The beauty of it, the absurdity and humor that we find in things like the mating rituals and dances of birds, and even to the decay and decomposition that the grubs and worms and fungi take care of."
Rounding out the show is the vintage Pilobolus piece "Untitled" from 1975, which begins with two proper-looking women who look like they've come out of an Edwardian painting. But things soon turn surreal through a surprise trick that's delighted audiences for almost 50 years.
City dance festival rare
A city-sponsored dance festival like Akron's, which brings dance to multiple neighborhoods over several weeks, is pretty rare, Kent said.
Instead of giving a master class to pre-professional dancers in conjunction with the Akron shows, Pilobolus, which was founded by nondancers in 1971 at Dartmouth College, will create dance with movers of all abilities Saturday at the University of Akron. Participants will engage in improvisation and collaboration, the same process that Pilobolus uses to form movement.
"The truth is, we actually prefer to have a class with different types of movers and people in it," Kent said. "You'll make a short little piece yourself, and it really is for anyone and everyone."
Pilobolus and Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival director Jane Startzman have been in talks about forming a collaboration in Akron that will allow Pilobolus to embed itself in the Akron community through pop-up dance events in multiple neighborhoods over the next several years.
"I feel it is essential that art is accessible to all of us," Kent said. "It's what allows people to process trauma for things like global pandemics and social unrest. It's exactly what people need."
Arts and restaurant writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Event: Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival
When: 8:45 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Where: Goodyear Heights Metro Park, 2077 Newton St., Akron
Preshow children's program: 7:45 p.m. each night, onstage with the Dance Institute
Class with Pilobolus: 11 a.m. Saturday at Guzzetta Hall Albrecht Studio, 139 E. Buchtel Ave., the University of Akron. People of all abilities welcome. $10. To register, see http://www.akrondancefestival.org/MasterClasses.html#master
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Pilobolus invites Akron dance fest audience into world of make-believe