Collaboration Brings Pilobolus and Author of "Braiding Sweetgrass" to Gunn

Robin Wall Kimmerer

On Friday, October 28, The Frederick Gunn School will host “An Evening with Robin Wall Kimmerer” in the Thomas Perakos Arts and Community Center on campus, in collaboration with the Institute for American Indian Studies (IAIS) in Washington and the acclaimed modern dance company Pilobolus. This discussion and performance is “structured around connecting people with a healthier relationship to Mother Earth as well as to all of our relatives, human and non-human alike,” said Gabe Benjamin, Camp Director, Public Programs Coordinator & Educator at IAIS.

Dr. Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, professor and best-selling author of several works, including the national best-selling book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants. She will participate in a moderated discussion about her work, which focuses on traditional ecological knowledge and how it can be used to foster sustainability and envision a future of healing. The program, which is supported by a grant from the Northwest Connecticut Community Foundation, will feature a performance of The Ballad by Pilobolus, a new piece largely inspired by Dr. Kimmerman’s work. A book signing will follow. This event is sold out, however, a limited number of tickets are available for The Frederick Gunn School community. 

Pilobolus X Gunn
Since last spring, Pilobolus has been a familiar presence on campus. On April 23, Pilobolus performed in the Tisch Family Auditorium as part of the school’s opening celebration for the Thomas S. Perakos Arts and Community Center (TPACC), which provided the community with an opportunity to thank in person lead donors, including Trustee Emeritus Jonathan Tisch ’72 and Tony-award winning Broadway producer Thomas Perakos ’69, and many others who helped to make the remarkable, 32,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art building possible. 

The self-described “rebellious dance company” quietly took up residence in TPACC in mid-June, to rehearse The Ballad, which premiered as part of its “Big Five-OH!” 50th anniversary celebration and world tour, which will continue through 2023. Then in August, Pilobolus returned to TPACC to host a two-day, 50th anniversary celebration that included a Saturday evening performance, cocktails, dinner, and dancing, and a one-hour, interactive family-friendly performance on Sunday of Pilobolus is a Fungus.

​​We were honored to host the Pilobolus Ball Weekend,” said Ron Castonguay, Director of the Arts and Music Director, who in July 2021 played saxophone for the soundscape of Bloom: A Journey by Pilobolus, a performance re-imagined as an outdoor car safari. “Pilobolus is truly unique. I had the privilege of working side-by-side with them at last summer's Bloom: A Journey at Sunny Meadow Farm in Bridgewater, Connecticut, which was honestly a life-changing experience for me. I witnessed a transformative creative process by all of the members of Pilobolus, collaborative rehearsals with community members and well-renowned artists, all culminating in a plethora of outdoor musical and dance performances that can only be described as awe-inspiring and unique. I am always eager to see what Pilobolus will do next — I am on the edge of my seat!”

In an interview in June, Artistic Director Matt Kent, who has worked since 1996 as a Pilobolus dancer, collaborator, creative director, and choreographer, talked about the company’s collaboration with The Frederick Gunn School. At the time, Pilobolus was in the process of relocating its offices from Washington Depot to the Washington Green, making the company the school’s newest neighbor. Asked about the decision to bring rehearsals to TPACC last spring, Kent said:  “This is the nicest theatre around, and it just happens to be across the street. It’s amazing. And it seems if we, Pilobolus, are so close and not interacting with the school and with the students, and with other artists and kids that are interested in art, it would make no sense.”

As Kent explained, Pilobolus does not have a home theatre, or the ability to stage what performers refer to as a “tech week,” leading up to opening night. The dancers may rehearse locally, for example in Washington Club Hall, but often they literally take their show on the road. “You try to load in the night before — and you have to tech this new work in three or four hours. It’s like a 12-hour day for the dancers. So, this was just a luxury, and also it felt special,” he said of rehearsing in TPACC. “To be able to see the company in an actual theatre space, with real lights and real show conditions, allows us to just up our game. It felt especially apropos because the piece that we premiered is a collaboration with the Institute of American Indian Studies.”

The Ballad is narrated by Darlene Kascak, the Education Coordinator and Native American Storyteller at IAIS, and is based in part on her personal perspective and stories set in a historical context. “She is from the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation. The land that the Gunn School [and the Town of Washington] is built on was the ancestral homelands of the Weantinock and the Pootatuck people, and they’re collectively known as the Schaghticoke now, and Darlene is a Schaghticoke storyteller,” Kent said. “It’s such an optimistic and beautiful perspective that she presents that it just felt cool  to do it here [in Washington]. She’s literally talking in the beginning: ‘I’m in awe that my ancestors for thousands of years walked the land that I have walked.’ And it’s right here so it felt really great to do it. It felt appropriate.”

A dialogue with nature
The piece that Pilobolus chose to perform for the TPACC opening celebration, Branches, was commissioned by Jacob’s Pillow and is set to music and the sounds of birds, frogs, and water, some recorded locally. “We were asked to make a piece about having a dialogue with nature,” Kent said, recalling that to get the dancers in the right mindset to collaborate on the choreography, he and Renée Jaworski, Executive Director/Artistic Director of Pilobolus, asked them to step outside the studio and take hike in Steep Rock. Their experience was not unlike that of Frederick Gunn School students on School Walk.

“We took a hike for half the day … phones down; [we] left them at the studio. We had to be like 30, 40-feet apart, so there’s not chatting, and you’re just quiet. We went and spent some time in the woods and ate lunch, and then came back into the studio and said, ‘What does that make you want to do?’ The clouds and the sun and the trees don't get enough credit sometimes,” Kent said, adding, “They’re inspirational as much as, you know, Mozart.”

Collaboration, Kent said, is very much in the company’s DNA. Recent examples of this can be found in the work Pilobolus has done with MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, called UP: The  Umbrellas Project, and in his own work as a zombie choreographer for AMC’s hit series, The Walking Dead, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, co-directed by Teller (of Penn & Teller) and Aaron Posner, which earned Kent a nomination for Best Choreography by the L.A. Drama Critics Circle.

Pilobolus began in 1971 at Dartmouth, when master teacher Alison Becker Chase taught a dance composition class as an elective at what was then an all-male college. Chase and two of her students, Jonathan Wolkin and Moses Pendelton, became founding members of Pilobolus with Robby Barnett, Martha Clarke, and Michael Tracy. The company settled in Washington and over the past five decades, has continued to evolve, performing on Broadway, at the Oscars, and the Olympic games, appearing on television, in movies, in advertisements, and in schools and businesses, and creating over 120 dance works.

“The roots of Pilobolus, our foundational principles, our DNA, is about being in nature, collaborating, improvising,” Kent said, describing the pieces the company creates as “whimsical, sometimes funny, and often psychedelic … like a dream logic.”

While the dancers change, the company continues to consist of a corps of four male and two female artists. “What emerges changes over time because we work with new dancers and they’re always bringing in new ideas and new culture,” Kent reflected. Of the company, he added: “We’re border-stalkers. We’re kind of on the edge, both as creators and as dancers. We like to be at places where cultures intersect, which can be difficult to navigate right now. I’m just grateful that we have people that are willing to do it and let it be difficult at the same time.”

Additional Images

The Ballad by Pilobolus, used with permission

The Ballad by Pilobolus, used with permission

Photo credit: Ben McKeown


Pilobolus performing Branches, April 2022

Pilobolus performing Branches at the opening celebration for the Thomas S. Perkaos Arts and Community Center, April 2022

Pilobolus performing Branches, April 2022

Pilobolus performing Branches in TPACC, April 2022

Ron Castonguay with saxophone in Bloom: A Journey

Ron Castonguay, Director of the Arts and Music Director, second row, left, with Pilobolus and other artists in Bloom: A Journey in July 2021