Joyce's `Finnegans Wake' Is Transformed Into Dance BYDavid Sterritt, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
NEW YORK — NO troupe has worked harder than the Pilobolus Dance Theatre to create cultural works that are exciting, amusing, and just plain fun. Accessibility has been the company's watchword since it was founded in the early 1970s by college students who cared as much about athletics as about art, and wanted their dance programs to be as exhilarating as a marathon race or a day on the ski slopes.
So how did James Joyce get into their act? And not just any Joyce work, but the huge and difficult "Finnegans Wake," perhaps the most daunting piece of literature ever published in the English-speaking world?
I'm not complaining about this. "Finnegans Wake" is dense, complex, and extraordinarily hard to figure out. But it's also beautiful and energetic, and I cheer any honest effort to probe its mysteries in terms of another art form.
Pilobolus's "Rejoyce," choreographed by Robby Barnett, Michael Tracy, and Jonathan Wolken, gets high marks for vigor and imagination. In the end, though, the attempt falls short. It's less an exploration of "Finnegans Wake" than a guided tour of certain images and themes from the book, transformed into choreographed mannerisms that are often superficial.
The action of the novel represents the night-long dream of a Dublin pub owner who has fallen into restless sleep after a disturbing incident that threatens to disrupt his business and family life. Interwoven with his ideas, impressions, and memories are echoes from all of human myth and history, sliding into one another with the murky logic of subconscious thought.
Joyce conveys his hero's mental activity through a newly invented language in which English and other tongues flow together as smoothly and inexorably as the rivers of the world, which are themselves present in the novel as symbols of the life, sustenance, and abundance that Joyce optimistically sees at the heart of all earthly things.
Pilobolus begins "Rejoyce" on a literal note, with a man falling out of the sky in graceful slow motion. He may be the novel's sleeping protagonist, or perhaps Finnegan, the hero of an Irish folk song about a laborer seemingly killed and resurrected after falling off a ladder.
Once he makes his landing, the proceedings begin in earnest as revelers pour out of a pub and discover their odd visitor. Later, they transmute into various other characters from the novel, including the protagonist's feisty wife and their twin sons, known as Shem the Penman and Shaun the Postman.
These figures dance their way through various Joycean moments, including a gently humorous bedroom encounter between the children and their parents, and a charming episode when the moon becomes a balloon and is rescued from the sky. Most of the sequences have only a plot or character resemblance to "Finnegans Wake," however, rather than a deep-down thematic connection.
And much of the dancing is rather dull by Pilobolus standards. The basic physical device of the production - dancers are frequently lofted into the air with ropes and pulleys - is neither fresh nor evocative enough to provide the Joycean excitement the work sadly lacks.
Their latest creation aside, how successfully are the Pilobolus dancers and choreographers pursuing their art nowadays? I came away from five other dances with mixed feelings. A haunting "Duet" from 1992, performed by Rebecca Jung and Jude Woodcock, was rigorously choreographed (by Alison Chase, Barnett, and Tracy) and carried an impressive emotional charge; and a lightweight but humorous solo choreographed by Tracy for the troupe's "Empty Suitor" held up well, more than a dozen years since its premiere.
By contrast, a 1985 work called "Televisitation" fell into coy and obvious tricks, choreographed by Barnett and Chase, and a 1990 dance called "The Particle Zoo" opened the evening on a regrettably cute and sentimental note, with active but fey choreography by Barnett, Tracy, and Wolken.
These low points notwithstanding, Pilobolus remains an asset to the modern-dance scene, maintaining an admirable commitment to dance as both art and entertainment. Even though Joycean pyrotechnics turn out to be beyond the troupe's grasp, it will be fascinating to see what they come up with next.
* Pilobolus will have a United States tour this autumn. Engagements include Jacksonville, Fla., Sept. 24-26; Hanover, N.H., Oct. 3; North Dartmouth, Mass., Oct. 5; Dallas, Oct. 15-16; Buffalo, N.Y., Oct. 19; Atlanta, Oct. 22-24; Boston, Oct. 27-31; Madison, Wis., Nov. 10; Cleveland, Ohio, Nov. 12-13; Hartford, Conn., Nov. 19-20. These dates will be followed by a European tour, Nov. 30-Dec. 12.