Penn & Teller create a new dance for Pilobolus

Teller talks about working with Pilobolus in a new work that explores the art of escape: [esc]

Time Out New York: Did you have the dancers look at videos of Houdini? 
 On the chair escape, we actually picked a YouTube video. Everybody looked at it, and we all thought about it. There’s a kind of collaboration that I love doing in which there is no compromise. There’s the kind of collaboration where a bunch of executives get in the room and they find something that pleases them all just enough, and it all comes out horribly beige. What Penn and I are accustomed to doing and are pretty skilled at doing—because he’s so different from me—is collaborating from very oppositional points of view. When we come up with something that pleases both of us—not just barely satisfies, but really pleases us—we usually get something that neither of us would have thought of. That’s the way we approached the work with them; we didn’t dictate to them, we took all of their ideas, we listened to everything that they had to say, and we gave them all our expertise. And there’s one more person I need to mention, a man who’s worked closely with Penn & Teller as a consultant for the last ten years. His name is Johnny Thompson, and he’s 78, and he is the most knowledgeable living magician. He happens to live in Las Vegas. He works with me on everything that I do. He’s working with me on The Tempest, he’s working with me on a revival of Play Dead, the play I did in New York two years ago with Todd Robbins. To have Johnny in the room—he is really showbiz savvy, and he’s no-nonsense, so he will see what everybody else who is getting all head in the clouds will not see. He also knows everything about every magic from the word go. When we designed the way that this box trick is being done, we had all of his sophisticated knowledge in there. 

Time Out New York: Tell me about that. 
 That was amazing. During intermission, a couple of audience members will have pieces of a box and they will screw them together, handling very thoroughly so it’s not like a magic prop that’s all premade and bought from a magic dealer. It’s basically a plywood box that they’ve screwed together. So escaping from this is sort of Houdini-level because Houdini would have these things examined; the materials that he was using were always very real things—packing crates and boilers and whatnot—so having Johnny on hand to be able to say, “Well, here’s a way that no one will ever be able to figure out that we can do this trick” is fabulous. He’s a great sleight-of-hand artist; he’s a great stage magician. He’s hilariously funny, and he has a heart of gold. He’s also an old jazz musician. He has had every job in show business—he was a fire-eater in the carnival. Every moment that I spend with Johnny Thompson is a moment that enhances my education and makes me a better human being. 

Time Out New York: How did the three of you direct the dancers? What were you thinking of in terms of their performance quality? Or were you? 
 I want them to be their wonderful selves. The two guys who do the pole thing, for example, are helping to put Jun in the bag with a couple of audience members; then, all of a sudden, they start to strip down to little G-strings, and they just enjoy it so much that you can’t help but enjoy it with them. So their natural personalities fully inform these things. These are not your neutral ballet dancers. These are people who come to you with a lot of personality. They need to have a blast doing this. Jordan looks not terribly unlike Grace Kelly, right? She’s an amazingly majestic piece of gorgeous human being, and to see Jordan being strapped with the duct tape is more of a violation and also more of a triumph. Who knows if some of the duct tape rips away some of her stockings to give the whole sense of, Okay, she’s been kidnapped by terrorists—now, the terrorists get a little of their own back from this unexpectedly tough woman. 

Time Out New York: What do the men do on the pole?
 They are back-to-back with the pole in between them. Their hands are behind their backs as though you were going to handcuff them, but instead they’re stretched all the way around the pole and around the chest of the other guy. Those hands are chained together. The same is done with their feet, and their chore is to disentangle themselves from each other and get all of those chains lifted over the pole so they writhe in and out of each other, climb all over each other, help each other shoulder-to-shoulder, lifting each other’s feet over the top—that sort of thing. 
Time Out New York: Did working with Pilobolus teach you or make you more aware of anything about magic? 
 To me, the thing about it is the strange doors that magic can open for a person: Here I am, this nut magician in Las Vegas and all of a sudden I’m working with a celebrated international dance troupe. It’s kind of a crazy door to open. 

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

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