In their utter dependence and sheer vulnerability, children often keep dysfunctional families from spinning apart. But can children also provide the energy and drive to keep their family going? An acrobatic new dance by the modern dance company Pilobolus, “The Inconsistent Pedaler,” centers on a teenage girl whose family members lose all their energy and momentum as soon as she stops pedaling her stationary bicycle.
Created by the company in tandem with celebrated Israeli short story writer Etgar Keret and his wife, filmmaker Shira Geffen, the 20-minute piece is now running at the Joyce Theater as part of a program of Pilobolus works. When it was performed last month at the American Dance Festival in North Carolina, critic Susan Broili of the Durham Herald-Sun called the piece an “imaginative, multi-layered work” that showcases the company’s “dramatic flair and quirky sense of humor.”
Since Martha Graham partnered with sculptor Isamu Noguchi to create the sets for her pioneering dances in the 1930s and ’40s, modern dance in America has been frequently cross-fertilized by other disciplines. Founded in 1971 by Dartmouth College students, Pilobolus is named for the “hat-thrower” or “dung cannon” fungus that grows in animal feces and propels its spores with terrific speed. In recent years, Pilobolus has worked with a broad range of artists and thinkers, from magicians Penn and Teller to a robotics team at MIT to the head writer of the children’s animated TV show, “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
The troupe’s current executive director, Itamar Kubovy, was born in Jerusalem. Kubovy has worked in theater, dance, film and television; he co-directed the 2002 season finale of “The West Wing.” Under his leadership over the last decade, Pilobolus has collaborated fruitfully with Jewish artists. In 1999, the company brought in children’s book authors Maurice Sendak and Arthur Yorinks to develop “A Selection,” a Holocaust-themed work that was documented in Mirra Bank’s award-winning 2002 film, “Last Dance.” More recently, in 2010, the company worked with graphic artist Art Spiegelman to devise “Hapless Hooligan in ‘Still Moving,” based on early American comic strips.
When the girl in “The Inconsistent Pedaler” (Jordan Kriston) stops pedaling her bike, which is situated on the side of the stage, the lights (created by Neil Peter Jampolis) flicker and ultimately fade out, while the family members collapse. Only when a mysterious stranger (Matt del Rosario) teaches her to ride calmly can she keep the family on track. The power of the bicycle seems boundless, as is shown in one of the piece’s most indelible moments; as part of the celebration of the 99th birthday of the grandfather (Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern), he is hoisted onto the bicycle, and, in a kind of dream sequence, is launched into the sky surrounded by floating rubber duckies.
Kubovy called the bicycle a kind of “deus ex machina,” that governs a world riven by the family members’ conflict between obligation and freedom. The theme, he said, is how these opposing feelings “get mixed up with each other in relation to love.” After all, he reflected, “every family has a pedaler,” a linchpin in the workings of the family unit.
Enlisting Keret made sense, Kubovy told The Jewish Week, because his stories are “enormously efficient and abrupt in a poetic way” and because they possess a “strong sense of imagery that tends toward the surreal” — qualities that are also amply on display in “Meduzot” (Jellyfish), an award-winning Israeli film made by Keret and Geffen in 2007. In the film, three women who are strangers to each other — a newly married bride, a struggling waitress, and a Filipina healthcare worker — find their lives colliding in the wake of the bizarre emergence from the sea of a mute little girl.
As Keret and Geffen’s work does, Kubovy said, “Our work lives and dies by its imagery” rather than by its component parts. The new piece was developed through a series of multiple improvisations with the company’s two female and five male dancers that took place at Pilobolus’ studio in Connecticut. (The music, which is a mix of Latin Big Band sound and rock, was scored later to fit the action, as is commonly done in film.)
Reached by phone at their home in Tel Aviv, Keret and Geffen praised Pilobolus for nurturing what Geffen called a “very open and creative process that was something like child’s play.” Keret recalled that the whole team behind the piece was drawn to the idea of a family in which the members feel each other’s emotions. “If one person is tired and stressed, the whole family feels it,” and, likewise, “their joy is contagious — it’s like bicycle riding — someone can be going uphill and wondering when it will end but also being vigorous and excited about it.”
In the resulting piece, he said, the girl who wants her grandfather’s birthday celebration to be a success “takes the responsibility that no one else does”; he compared it to the way in which the member of a Jewish family “slides into the position of organizing a seder or building a sukkah. The grown-ups go through the motions, but the child raises a higher emotional bar, because the experience is so important to him or her.” Just as you can pedal a bicycle in various ways, with varying degrees of energy, he noted, “You can keep a family going in different ways.”
Keret has been outspoken on the current conflict in Gaza; he penned a July 14 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in which he called for the word “peace” to be replaced by the word “compromise” in order to underscore the need for dialogue. Does “The Inconsistent Pedaler” have a political subtext? Keret recalled that he and Geffen began working with Pilobolus around the time of the rocket attack that occurred 18 months ago. But he insisted that the family in the story has no definable ethnicity, and that the piece “goes beyond belief and nationality.”
Indeed, he added, “We are each of us, Israelis and Palestinians, dysfunctional families who stop functioning well as a group when we feel threatened.”
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Hannah Kosstrin, who teaches dance and Jewish studies at Ohio State University, said that the description of the “The Inconsistent Pedaler” (she has not seen it) reminded her of the work of Meredith Monk, a Jewish performance artist who works at the intersection of dance, theater, music and film — and whose works, Kosstrin noted, “often feature a teenager who has visions that determine the fate of the world.” (Monk also seems fond of wheels; in one of her works, “Vessel: An Opera Epic,” Joan of Arc is burned at the stake as six motorcycles roar around her.)
While “The Inconsistent Pedaler” may not have been created as a political allegory, Kosstrin conceded, its meaning — as with any work of art — will be largely determined by the way it is received by the audience. “A piece about a dysfunctional family will resonate,” she explained, “with an audience seeing it while a war is going on. Even if it wasn’t made in that milieu, it will inevitably be viewed in that context as a dance about trying to keep the world together.”
“The Inconsistent Pedaler” runs through Aug. 9 at the Joyce Theatre, 175 Eighth Ave., at 19th Street. It is on Program B. For tickets ($45-$69) and performance schedule, call JoyceCharge at (212) 242-0800 or visit www.joyce.org.