Pilobolus Pounces

From the court to center stage, an Arizona native stars in a touring eclectic dance show Sunday at Centennial

If Pilobolus Dance Theater could design a perfect dancer for the company, Jordan Kriston might be it.

First of all, she didn't dance as a child, as most professional dancers do. Even so, she was in perpetual motion. The Phoenix native spent her childhood playing every sport she could—hard. She swam, batted softballs, did gymnastics, shot hoops and, at Camelback High School, competed on both the basketball and volleyball teams. Like the troupe's founders, she never set foot on a dance floor until she was a teenager.

"My main focus was sports," Kriston says from the Pilobolus studio in rural Connecticut, where she and the other company dancers were preparing for a tour that will bring them to Tucson on Sunday night. "I first took dance as an elective in high school."

It wasn't until she got to Arizona State University that she committed to the art form.

"I fell in love with dance at ASU," she said. Most of her fellow student dancers had been toiling at the barre since they were tots, but the dance faculty made an exception for Kriston.

"They let me in because I was an athlete," she said.

The company's founders, Robby Barnett and Michael Tracy, have resumes that are uncannily similar. They were athletes who didn't discover dance until they happened on a class at Dartmouth College. They brought their athleticism to the new troupe they founded in 1971, and tellingly named it for a fungus that shoots its spores outward in great bursts of speed.

In the years since, Pilobolus has performed in 64 countries, drawing from its own repertory of 115 original dances. The company is known for inventive movement that's part gymnastics, part modern dance and all show biz, aided and abetted by a wide array of startling props.

One work in this Sunday's concert will have the dancers confining their movements to a tiny platform, in another they'll dance mid-air on Plexiglas. In still another they'll parade back and forth through a swinging door that rolls around the stage on wheels.

Kriston first came across Pilobolus's distinctive movement in New York, where she'd headed after graduation in 2006 to make it as a dancer. She waitressed and bartended, and got gigs as a paid dancer at Bar Mitzvahs, all the while taking dance classes from the likes of Mark Morris.

She had begun getting pickup professional work with two small companies, H.T. Chen and Dancers ("his movement is martial-art inspired, athletic and powerful") and with Douglas Dunn, an alumnus of Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Everything changed when Kriston saw Pilobolus. She was spellbound by the muscular dancers twisting their bodies into shapes that didn't seem humanly possible.

"I was so inspired," Kriston says. "Something hit me in the chest. It was unlike anything I had seen before."

The company's auditions are notoriously difficult, and Kriston was turned down the first time she auditioned.

"At other auditions, the choreographer taught a phrase and you had to learn it and repeat it. At Pilobolus they said, 'Do whatever you want.'" She didn't make the final cut. "It was a wake-up call. I only knew how to do what people told me to do," she says.

After that, she immersed herself in the improv jams that abound in New York. By her next Pilobolus audition, "I was much more prepared. I knew more about who I was as a dancer and a person."

After acing the preliminary audition in New York, she made it through two more rounds in the Connecticut studio. This time she was selected—after she outran the other aspiring dancers in a race inside the studio walls.

In 2010, she joined the small company, which typically has only seven dancers. The dancers collaborate with the company choreographers, Renee Jaworski and Matt Kent, in creating the works, and the company also frequently works with artists from different fields. The magicians Penn &Teller and the rock band OK Go, for instance, worked with Pilobolus on pieces that will be in the Tucson show.

Kriston said she's delighted to be coming back home to Arizona to perform; she'll dance in all five works on the program.

"I always love to come back to the desert," she said. "It's my homeland."

This performance includes "On the Nature of Things," from 2014. The trio is set to "Baroque music with an operative feel," performed on a platform just 3 feet across, Kriston says. The work, inspired partly by classical sculptures of highly muscled bodies, is about "relationships, innocence, seduction and manipulation. It has lots of skin, lots of partnering."

"All Is Not Lost," a dance for six performed to recorded music by OK Go, is "geometric, like a kaleidoscope, with images of floating." A live camera feed captures the movement of the dancers as they gyrate on transparent Plexiglas.

A wheeled, swinging door dominates "Threshold," a dance for five that's the newest work on the program. "It's hauntingly beautiful," Kriston says. "It's literally and metaphorically about going through the passageway."

"Escape" is a "modern Pilobolus take on magic," Kriston says. Its six dancers participate in four daring escapes, with the music varying for each episode: techno for a scary scene, Sinatra for a funny one. The troupe created the work in Las Vegas with Penn & Teller; a voiceover by Penn is on the soundtrack for the traveling show.

The final number, "Sweet Purgatory," is also the oldest, dating from 1991. Performed by six dancers to music by Shostakovich, the work is about "being in Purgatory," Kriston says. "You don't know how long you'll be there. You can't quite tell if you're happy or sad. It's beautiful, touching, haunting."

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