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In Memorium: Jonathan Wolken - Pilobolus loses founding Piloboli

by Paul Ben-Itzak
June 26, 2010
I once observed a Pilobolus rehearsal in its Washington, Connecticut studio in which Jonathan Wolken, who co-founded the company in 1971 with Moses Pendleton and Steve Johnson in Alison Chase's Dartmouth dance class (she'd soon join them), walked in and changed everything that had just been created, as if it didn't count because he hadn't been involved in it. What's refreshing about the reminiscences from the Pilobolus diaspora far and wide published on the company's blog since Wolken passed away suddenly on June 13 at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York (from complications during a stem cell transplant) is that they capture his inspirational side without masking over that he could be a hard driver.

Matt Kent, an alumnus from the late '90s who some thought might inherit the company when the founders retired, because like them he was manic and as much a jock as a dancer, writes, "Jonathan, in large doses, you altered my path, lead me, pushed me, shoved me, pulled me, into who I am and what I do. How I think. Thanks. Peace. I loved you. Say hi to Zappa for me. I miss you." (The company made its fabled debut opening for Frank Zappa.) Note the word "pushed" — and note how the pushing is remembered in gratitude.

Jude Woodcock, a legendary second generation Piloboli who danced with the company for more than a decade before going on at age 40 to become a champion triathlon competitor, paid a similarly frank tribute: "I hope it helps his family as well, knowing how much people loved him and how much of an effect he had on all our lives," she said. "My time as a Pilobolus dancer was an important part of my life. Jonathan was a part of that, providing some of the most rewarding times and some of the most frustrating times mixed together."

This is reality — no falsely glowing tributes or postmortum erecting of a pedestal, but a realistic *eloge* to a typically demanding creator and collaborator — and member of what is, as any long-time company member will tell you, not just an artistic enterprise but a family, even if that family feeling was tarnished when the company, with the complicity of Wolken and fellow co-director Robby Barnett, fired Alison Chase, long regarded as the mother of Pilobolus. It's a company whose founders often split but in which the lines remain nonetheless unbreakable; thus, while the break-up with Pendleton, who founded his own company Momix in the 1980s, was bitter, particularly over custody of work Pendleton had created with the company, the dance teams of the two companies have sometimes seemed interchangeble, traded back and forth like baseball players. (For example, one of Pendleton's greatest muses at Momix, Rebecca Stenn, went on to be one of the founding members of Pilobolus Too, so that even though Pendleton had not been with the company for years, his influence continued to be felt.)

But enough of fraternal and maternal strife; what Pilobolus dancers seem to be thinking of most these days, when they refer to Wolken, is his profound influence on their lives and work. And the most touching memories recount his teaching.

"My fondest memory with Jonathan is of working with him one on one on 'Pseudopodia,'" Rebecca Anderson Darling, another seminal Pilobolus dancer of more recent years, recounts on the blog, referring to being taught the seminal Pilobolus solo of early years, in which the dancer is a sort of organic blob rolling around the stage to an organic score that evokes the drumming the young men played for their own early essay at a festival organized by Murray Louis. "I was the first woman that he taught this amazing solo to and he really worked me on it, in the best way, making sounds for each phrase and pause: 'shooop, da,da, di da,and thwap and hold … and go!' He taught me dynamics and the importance of the natural gravity of movement and momentum. He had the excitement of a child when he would get right down on the floor with me and coach each roll. That was a lot of fun and I thank you Jonathan for passing that gift on to me. Your passion is undeniable and I am sure you are creating something spectacular up in heaven.

"A teacher, friend, artist, choreographer gone from this earth too soon. I write with a heavy heart. Jonathan and his family are in my prayers. I am left with the undeniable reminder that Pilobolus is a family and a family that I feel lucky to be a part of. Time will heal and Jonathan's legacy will go on. We must remember to love each other more and keep the spirit of collaboration alive. Jonathan you are missed already. Love and hugs to my Pilobolus family. Big hug to you Jonathan."

Note that the word 'family' comes up a lot in the dancers' remembrances of Wolken and, in a larger sense, their years with the company. They don't use the word lightly or generically — it's exact. Like a family, Pilobolus created (past-tense because this is not always still the case) collaboratively; like a family,Pilobolus was messy. Like a family, at one point it's directors even all saw a therapist. And like a family, it sometimes leaves its children with mixed feelings. Their years being weaned by Wolken, Pendleton, Barnett, Michael Tracy, and Chase have left them smarting sometimes, but when one of their parents dies, they sense if anything even more the family ties that bind them in this intricately knotted rope.

The life and work of Jonathan Wolken, born in 1949 and who leaves behind him a wife, four daughters, and a whole lot of artistic children, will be celebrated July 15 at 2 p.m. at the Joyce Theater. To read more remembrances and tributes, click here.
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