There have been countless roads not taken by Pilobolus, the inveterately inventive modern dance company that combines contortionist feats, circus arts, and fantastical décor and costumes in celebration and mimicry of the natural (and unnatural) world. But the fastest lane they choose to avoid emerged in the aftermath of the 79th Academy Awards in 2007, when Pilobolus blew the minds of the vast international audience tuning in for some Oscar glamor.

Cal Performances,
Zellerbach Hall,
Oct. 21-22

It wasn’t that Pilobolus walked away from all the opportunities that arose after the Academy Awards performance featuring the company’s signature (and oft-imitated) shadow technique. The following year’s itinerary included appearances on Sesame Street, Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Oprah Winfrey. But if there was a moment to pursue empire-building ambition a la Cirque du Soleil, the post-Academy Awards buzz presented strong temptations.

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“The Oscars certainly got us a lot of attention,” said Matt Kent, whose role in Pilobolus has evolved since he joined in 1996 from dancer to creative director and choreographer to his present position as co-artistic director with Renée Jaworski. “We did a lot of corporate type of engagements, but I think getting big is overrated. We kept the focus on making something artful. If we were big, we would not have come out of this global shutdown.”

With its small footprint the six-member company has bounced back into action, returning to the stage energized for the tour celebrating its half-century milestone. The West Coast premiere of the Big Five Oh! production brings Pilobolus to Zellerbach Hall Oct. 21-22 for the company’s first Cal Performances engagement since the mid 1980s.

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Created during lockdown at the Pilobolus compound in rural Washington Depot, Connecticut, the Big Five Oh! features new and reset works from deep in the company’s repertoire. “As everyone got vaxxed we were able to work with Moses Pendleton, who lives down the street,” Kent said, referring to the dancer and choreographer who co-founded the company at Dartmouth in 1971 and went on to co-found the company Momix.

“It was really fun for us as the new leaders to go to these icons to help us get these old works back and refresh them a little bit. Maybe that would have happened without the pandemic, but maybe not. It’s been quite a ride.”

When they couldn’t do hands-on work with the dancers last year, Kent and Jaworski found new ways to interact with audiences, like a roving car safari with multiple interactive stages featuring music, dance, theater and aerialists. Pilobolus also created a video series to help sheltered-in-place seniors stay active that was featured on CBS This Morning.

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In many cases Pilobolus gets the call when art directors and programmers aren’t sure what else to do. “We’re nimble and small and live in that world of not knowing what we’re going to,” Kent said. “One thing that happened is that the pandemic reminded us what’s important: creating new work, making things together, and helping our community.”

The company has never shied away from ambitious undertakings. Perhaps most famously, Pilobolus contentiously collaborated with author Maurice Sendak on “A Selection,” a devastating work about the Nazi fake “work camp” Terezín. The making of the project was captured in Mirra Bank’s award-winning 2002 documentary Last Dance.

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More recently, Pilobolus has worked widely with magicians Penn and Teller, with the dancers pulling off Houdini-like escapes from elaborate confines. “It’s not what a lot of people thought of as dance,” Kent said. “But that’s how we got started as a company, creating works that extended or ignored what was considered dance.”

The willingness to jump into just about any situation is how Kent found himself amongst the living dead, or more precisely The Walking Dead, as the zombie choreographer for AMC’s hit series. As resume items go, zombie choreographer is hard to beat, and when he got the call he figured “well, this will be terrible or awesome,” Kent said. He was familiar with the source material, Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels, and once he heard that Frank Darabont was directing, he was in.

“My job the first season was to train 300 extras that came in,” he said. “I thought that if I approach this as a choreographer and give them moves it’ll look like Thriller. But there must be as many ways to move for the undead as the living. They had zombie bootcamp, and I worked with makeup artists to categorize the extras, who were these crazy zombie fans. My one regret is that I could have been one of the ‘hero’ zombies but I decided not to do it. My wife was nine months pregnant and I figured I get the call to meet her in the hospital when I was in full makeup and I’d cause a commotion.”

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....