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]

In this online exclusive, Pilobolus dancer Jun Kuribayashi—who finds himself trapped in a duffel bag in the new [esc]—talks about the experience of working with master illusionists Penn & Teller. The Pilobolus collective is is residence at the Joyce Theater July 9–August 4.

Time Out New York: In [esc], you contort your body inside a duffel bag. When did you first realize you were so flexible?
Jun Kuribayashi:
I was probably in my mid-twenties, and it was kind of by accident. I was at a club, and I was break-dancing and battling somebody and this person did a backflip, and you’ve always got to one-up somebody. So I did a backflip into a split, not really thinking, Am I stretched? Can I do this? But I felt what I felt, and went with my adrenaline and from then on, I was like, Well I can do the splits if I’m warm enough. And there you go. Just as a joke I might have tried to put my heel behind my head; I kind of got close, and then I thought maybe if I stretch a little bit more, I can do it. Finally, I got one leg up and then I did two. And in Pilobolus, while just messing around, we have a saying: “You showy, you do-y.” So I kept messing with it during warm-up, and they were like, “He can put his heels behind his head!” That’s something one of our artistic directors, [the late] Jonathan Wolken, would do for fun: do interviews with both of his legs behind his head. That’s when I figured out, I am fairly flexible, and I have pretty open hips, just like him.

Time Out New York: What is that saying you have?
Jun Kuribayashi:
If you show it—it doesn’t even have to be during a rehearsal—but if you’re warming up or just messing around, the artistic directors are always watching out of the corner of their eye. And you can be messing around, and they’ll see something and go, “Do that again.” And they’ll tweak it to be as interesting as viable for stage. That’s how it works. It’s kind of a threat. Like do not show them anything if you’re not willing to do it 100 to 150 times a year. 

Time Out New York: When did you start dance training?
Jun Kuribayashi:
I started out in martial arts and then I did athletics. I had so much energy as a kid. I did break dancing when I was 20 to 22 and then I took my first ballet class when I was 22; two weeks later, they put me in the university dance company at the University of Kansas. Three years later, I auditioned for Pilobolus, because one of the directors at KU was like, “You should audition for this company; I think you’d like it.” I had never been to New York, so I asked my then-girlfriend to come and join me in New York. I thought, I’ll get cut quickly and then I’ll get to see New York, and one week later I was still doing the audition, and I didn’t get to see New York at all. Instead, they offered me a job and two weeks later I was up in Connecticut. Very spontaneous.

Time Out New York: Why did you take that ballet class in the first place?
Jun Kuribayashi:
I was actually break dancing at a club and this young lady saw me and asked, “What’s your background?” And I said, “I do capoeira,” and she said, “Would you be willing to [teach] a workshop in my dance-history class?” I said, “Sure.” I did a two-hour workshop and the director of the dance department at the time pulled me aside after the class and said, “I’m very impressed with you. Would you like to dance for the University of Kansas?” I said, “Sure—give me a scholarship and we’ll figure it out.” I took three beginning classes and that was the beginning.

Time Out New York: And you graduated in 2004?
Jun Kuribayashi:
Yes. I ended up only having technique classes left, and they offered me a job; my professors said, “You only have technique classes left and technically you take these classes in order to get a job, which you’re already being offered, so we’ll have the artistic directors of KU give you your final grade and that’ll count toward your credit.” I was very lucky.

Time Out New York: What was the process like with Penn & Teller? You all went to Las Vegas, which is different for you.
Jun Kuribayashi:
It was really interesting. When collaborators come and work with us, they get lost for half the conversation, because we start using terminology that they don’t understand. Ballet terminology, like tendu and plié, is universal. People just get it. But when we’re in the studio, we have our own vocabulary: “We’ll do a reciprocal over there.” People get lost; magic is exactly the same and when Johnny Thompson, Penn & Teller’s mentor, and also when Penn & Teller were talking, we could not follow their verbiage at all. We’re used to being involved in the conversation and postulating about the potential of something, but we just kind of sat there for the first day. They would sit and talk for a very long time about stuff. And we like to be active, so after the first half of the day, they were like, “They seem bored. Let’s see what they can do.” They tied us up in ropes and taught us some of the traditional ways of getting out of straitjackets. What was funny was before they could tell us how to get out of them traditionally, we started doing it ourselves. They were like, “They’re getting out of them without doing it the way you’re supposed to.” [Laughs] It’s interesting. They saw the potential in that and said, “There are no genuine escape acts—there haven’t been for a very long time, so this might be an avenue we can explore,” and one of the things they did is start taping me up in a ball, and asked, “Can you roll around?” I could only use my toes. I said, “Take me to the chair so I can be secure and hop around.” They wanted to see what movement vocabulary I could do while I was taped. Just as a joke I broke out of the tape, and they all looked at me like, “That’s crazy—you’re not supposed to be able to do that.” That’s how we found a lot of our vocabulary—just as jokes. For another of our acts, we were in a studio where there happened to be a stand-alone stripper pole. [Associate artistic director] Matt Kent and I started playing on the stripper pole as a joke and then we said, “What happens if we tie each other to it and are strapped to each other?” That ended up becoming another act. And then we were doing an improv and somebody put me in a bag or a sack and started hauling me around the stage, and they were like, “It would be really funny if he was stuck in a backpack. We could do a whole TSA traveling joke,” so we went to a sports outdoors-equipment store. I went in with a camera crew and we tested these backpacks and it turned out that a North Face duffel bag was the best one; it was tiny, but big enough that I could fit and kind of be uncomfortable and make people think claustrophobic thoughts. Eriko Jimbo was the only other person willing to go in that bag and suffer for long periods of time. You’re creating vocabulary for hours upon hours. You come out and you’re completely sweaty. I found out that I was slightly claustrophobic, but not enough to deter me from trying to explore the art of duffel-bag dancing. At one point, Johnny or Penn said, “I think there was something in the news about an agent from London killing himself in the bag,” and we looked it up: There was a video of his assistant getting into a duffel bag—it was the exact same bag from North Face. So that’s one of the first things I think about when I’m in there. You can’t help but think about it. We have a safety protocol. If something does happen, I’ll call out to the stagehand and they’ll cut me out because I’m bound, tied and then zip-tied into the bag.


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