Visual Magicians in the Hills of Connecticut

On John Kane’s photography of Pilobolus and Momix.

 

John Kane, Where landscape becomes dreamscape, 2008. (All images copyright John Kane. Used by permission.)

In the hills of northwestern Connecticut there is a portion of the state, a rural and rural-suburban region, that I refer to as “Pilobo-land”: it includes Washington, New Milford, and other nearby towns, and has long been home to two of the world’s most celebrated dance-theater companies, Pilobolus and its sibling, Momix, as well as to a number of their most noteworthy friends, neighbors, and collaborators. It’s a community that tends to be on a first-name basis, even between individuals who have yet to meet directly. Pilobo-land, however, is more than a place; it’s also the overlapping worlds, on stages and in minds, that it creates. Just as Vladimir Nabokov dubbed his cherished intangible possessions “unreal estate” one might, in regard to Pilobolus and Momix, speak of “surreal estate.” It’s a place where landscape becomes dreamscape, where the rural and the theatrical are both strikingly pictorial, and no photographer has captured them more artfully or faithfully, through multiple decades, than resident John Kane. A selection of his work, a small number of images, dramatically enlarged, is now on display in the heart of the territory it documents, at the Judy Black Memorial Park and Gardens, in the village of Washington Depot.

 

John Kane in his studio, 2019

 

“I was the kid with the Polaroid Swinger,” John Kane explains, evoking the iconic white camera with a strap, easy to carry and easy to use, that arrived in 1965 and became a commercial phenomenon. He still looks a bit like a kid, remarkably boyish at a very-hard-to-believe sixty-seven, with decades of photographic experience that stretch back, he says, “as long as I can remember.” It’s as if he received not only his first camera (a Christmas gift), but a certain gene, from his amateur-photographer father, and the combination colored the dirt roads of his rural small-town upbringing as an Italian-American in Cheshire, Connecticut. It wasn’t until his thirties, however, that he met Moses Pendleton—the wildly inventive cofounder of Pilobolus and primary force behind Momix—and photographed Momix in its mid-’80s configuration. Sometime soon after, he also met another Pilobolus founder, Robby Barnett, among whose wide-ranging intellectual interests a well-informed appreciation of photography holds a prominent place; Barnett asked him to photograph Pilobolus. (Pendleton left Pilobolus in the early nineties and has since focused exclusively on Momix, with his partner in life and art, Cynthia Quinn.) John Kane has worked with both companies ever since. Most interestingly, sidestepping the conventional impulse of dance photography, with its effort to capture the essence of live performance, Kane and his collaborators have instead chosen to create original works, with poses conceived to distill and celebrate the aesthetic identities of each of the companies.

 

John Kane, Momix (Rebecca Rasmussen), 2017

 

Working with the two is similar but not identical, just as the companies themselves are like siblings with distinct personalities. While visual wit and ingenious tableaux have always been key ingredients in both, Momix calls its performers “dancer-illusionists” and prizes extravagantly imagistic works that create a lush, rich universe into which to draw its audience; whereas Pilobolus tends to emphasize the human body as an artistic instrument and phenomenon unto itself—stripped, sometimes literally, of distractions. We can see both the connections and the contrast when we look, first, at an image of Momix dancer Rebecca Rasmussen, perched regally atop an enormous red dress (or is it a red curtain, or red paper, turned into a dress?), a dress so large as to leave us wondering how many other dancers might be hidden beneath, and within, its folds, and then turn to an image of two female Pilobolus dancers, naked, one arched backward into a perfect human arc, the other holding on, atop the arc, with a tenderness hard to reconcile with such an unimaginable position, a strange blend of the superhuman and the completely human, in a rocky, autumnal quarry setting.

 

John Kane, Pilobolus (Renée Jaworski and Andrew Herro), 2007.

 

In both troupes, the dancers themselves come up with a lot of ideas, in Momix for consideration by Moses and Cynthia, and in Pilobolus for artistic directors Renée Jaworski and Matt Kent, or, prior to his retirement, Robby Barnett. The photo sessions partake in a similar improv process, a parallel search for serendipity. Jaworski, looking back on a strangely evocative image from 2007 in which she appears doubled over vertically, held aloft above fellow dancer Andy Herro, remembers: “It was always hit or miss because we didn’t go in with a shot list. We just went in and made stuff. This one, we were playing in the corner and I ended up climbing on him and then I think I said, Oh, can you lift me by my stomach, like a big sit sort of? and he said, Like this? and I jumped and he lifted and John started shooting.” The result is intriguing: the oddness of the pose is matched by the odd, ambiguous gaze of the statue-like male dancer.

John Kane, Pilobolus (Jun Kuribayashi and Matt Del Rosario), 2012

 

A spare, crisp black-and-white image of a pair of male Pilobolus dancers demonstrates how precisely the lines and curves of the human body can be delineated and, in turn, delineate ideas. Jun Kuribayashi holds his form straight at an antigravitational forty-five-degree angle while grasping a curved metallic bar that fellow dancer Matt Del Rosario, turned away from him, holds behind his own curved body. Against a stark white background, with nothing to distract from the geometric lines of the image, the configuration evokes a bow and arrow, hammer and sickle, sundial (the indicator on a sundial is called a gnomon, and Kuribayashi’s impressive angle in the photo mirrors a pose in the Pilobolus piece Gnomen), some other form of timepiece, or all of the above, while also evoking the strength, fragility, and beauty of the human form. It’s perfect Pilobolus.

 

John Kane, Momix indoors, 2012

 

For an artist to double as a farmer is natural in Pilobo-land—Pendleton grew up on a farm, and he took the name “Momix” from a milk supplement for calves—and thus there is old farm equipment in John Kane ’s photography studio. The studio is, in fact, a big converted cow barn, on a farm that came up for sale in the late nineties. The potential studio space wasn’t the only draw, as Kane points out: “I had a couple of boys, and it seemed like a great place for kids to grow up.” At one point they had twenty goats, as well as chickens. Now that the boys are grown, he has scaled back, to just a few goats and cows; but still he jokes, “I don’t run a farm, it runs me.” When he moved there, photography was changing, and he chose to go digital. “I have never missed a day in the darkroom. I like to run outside. I like the sunshine. It was an organic, green move. No more chemicals.” Green, too, for his palette, as his photography expanded into the rolling green fields. The fluency with which his indoor and outdoor shots dovetail is embodied in a pair of images that capture the festive, ritual quality of Momix, its performers costumed in sumptuous crimson fabric, in forms that resemble evening dresses for the women, sarong-like wraps for the bare-chested men. In the studio shot, the ivory white background brings out the joyful red fabric and, secondarily, the flesh tones, as the women leap in the air, aided and honored by the surrounding men; in the outdoor shot, the company, in the same costumes, but now in a large, verdant field, are all in midair, leaping with even greater abandon, a collective manifestation of both individual and group freedom, the red costumes hovering with their wearers amid a bountifully green universe.

 

John Kane, Momix outdoors, 2012

 

Perhaps the intersection of these natural and artistic worlds is best encapsulated in a picture from 2008 that stands apart for its serene absence of athleticism. It again uses a green and red palette and could just as easily come from either, or neither, company. In fact, it is a Pilobolus dancer, Jenny Mendez, who is ensconced in the pile of apples that seem to embrace her in abundance as she lies on a bed of grass, with only her face, its closed eyes and apple-red lips, and her arms visible. She embraces herself, and perhaps, symbolically, the apples, the universe, and life itself. It’s a picture that can at first seem less impressive than those that entail acrobatic feats, but its stillness and its emphasis on sensibility reveal that the essence of Pilobolus and Momix is not dance, not choreographic movement or motion, but the marriage of wit and physical sensuality. Here, stillness itself becomes the theme, sensibility is everything, and the longer one stares at this vision of a dancer at rest, the stronger it grows, until one comes to cherish the cherishing it endorses.

 

John Kane, Pilobolus, apples (Jenny Mendez), 2008

 

John Kane’s photos of Pilobolus and Momix can be seen at the Judy Black Memorial Park and Gardens in Washington Depot, Connecticut, through May 26, 2019.

Momix continues to tour in the U.S. and Italy in the coming months.

Pilobolus returns to the Joyce Theater in Chelsea for a summer season from June 11 to 29.

Robert Pranzatelli is an independent writer and publisher, and a longtime staff member of Yale University Press. His past essays on the Daily have looked at Belle Époque artist Lucien Métivet, French comics master Jean “Moebius” Giraud, and contemporary Belgian graphic novelist Max de Radiguès. He is currently at work on a book about Pilobolus.

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