Pilobolus dancer Jun Kuribayashi talks about working with Penn & Teller

For the new Pilobolus season at the Joyce Theater, dancer Jun Kuribayashi talks about the premiere of [esc]

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Time Out New York: How is your body contorted inside of it?
Jun Kuribayashi:
My right leg is behind my head and strapped to my left arm, and my other leg is tied to my other hand that’s tied together with the other string. If you could picture a rodeo when they tie up a cow, it’s like that except one leg is behind my head, so it’s a little harder to get out. In this piece, I’m in a duffel bag and I’m doing so much in that duffel bag. But I have very little room for error. If my timing is wrong, I’m completely going to miss my mark because I have to crawl across the stage and find the trash can that has a knife in it that’s going to cut me free, and if I don’t dump the knives in a good manner and roll over to it, I’m not getting out of that duffel bag. So there are all these things that are really insane that are going on in the bag. It’s like a whole other dance. Out of all the roles that I’ve created or performed, this is the most difficult in terms of not being able to see and being in a 100-plus–degree bag.

Time Out New York: What was the studio process like for you?
Jun Kuribayashi:
Penn & Teller are very intelligent, and it’s just great working with people who know so much about their field. They’re polished thinkers. Magic and dance, you would think that they’d have a lot of similarities, but at the same time there are a lot of things that are passed down from generation to generation that we would have never known, and they have that insight. It’s really interesting to see that completely different world. It’s definitely made me excited about magic again.

Time Out New York: But magic is also like dance in that they’re both oral traditions, passed down from generations.
Jun Kuribayashi:
Yes. And there’s a certain grace about it. In order to execute it in a way that the audience can follow, there’s definitely a rhyme and rhythm to everything. And it’s so much more methodical than I thought it was. Dance, you could just do it for aesthetics—you could just do patterns and it can be very self-involved and that’s it, but with magic you can go that route, but you certainly have to start with the fundamentals and the intellect behind it. What are you trying to accomplish? The idea of misdirection and all this stuff they helped us to understand. What’s funny is that they taught us history, but at the same time everything we’re doing except for one act is pure strength, agility, stamina. It’s all about escape, but there’s no trick to any of it. It’s really happening in front of you. I think they were interested in that in the same way that sometimes when we become famous for something like body sculpting and lifting and shadow, we tend to veer away from it because we’ve explored it and know what it’s about and we kind of get bored by it unless something new comes to the table. I think that was the same for them. They know all of these things and were like, we have these shiny new toys—what can we do with them?

Time Out New York: That’s why I think this is so promising: They have knowledge and you have what you do and it will be reframed. So many choreographers come and—no offense—work with Pilobolus, and it’s never deep enough.
Jun Kuribayashi:
Right. I think it’s closest—these men think in a different way, but at a deeper level than our artistic directors do. It was nice to sit and listen to them talk and debate, and the best idea wins.

Time Out New York: I also don’t think I’ve really thought about the physicality that goes into magic before. I feel kind of guilty about that.
Jun Kuribayashi:
[Laughs] Well, that’s the thing. If they do it right, you don’t have to think about it. There are illusionists and people who do sleight of hand. We went out the other night, and it was a woman’s birthday and her wish was for Johnny to do a trick. He has all these cards and props that he brings with him just for fun and just in case and so he did some for her. Our minds are blown; we’re right next to him. We should be able to figure these things out, because we’ve been given hints during our research and development of this piece, and you just can’t see it. He’s just so good. Teller said, “That trick that he showed you—if I were to stop everything I was doing right now to master that trick, it would take me ten years.” That blew my mind. He’s like the Wikipedia of magic. All of them are really, but Johnny in particular. We are very lucky to have had Penn & Teller introduce us to him. They’re all straightforward in a very lovely way. I remember working in the bag once, and I was frustrated; when you’re in a bag, you can only hear yourself and a lot of muffled voices, and I had five or six people giving me direction. When you’re in a duffel, you’re basically like a shark: You can only go sideways and forward, but not backward. I was trying to explain that to them and I looked at Penn. He was very quiet. I said, “Penn, what do you think?” and he said, “You don’t want to hear what I have to say. They don’t want to hear what I have to say. I think they should shut up and let you do your thing.” That would have never crossed my mind. They agreed, and I made a story for myself: If a bomb was in the bag with me and the key was in the trash can across the stage, how would I get there as efficiently and quickly as possible? It was the best incarnation of everything—I forgot what everybody tried to get me to do to make it interesting, and I found the most efficient way to do it. And from there, we made it a little more artistic. That’s why I love working with different people.

Time Out New York: What is the tone of the piece?
Jun Kuribayashi:
It’s a little bit of everything. There are some dark elements, but it’s also a little quirky. There are definitely comedic moments. We have a little bit of drama, humor and horror. And a little bit of mystery.

Pilobolus performs at the Joyce Theater July 9–Aug 4.


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