Theatre & Dance alum Shawn Ahern ’10 was back on campus on Oct. 15 with the awe-inspiring Pilobolus Dance Theatre, which performed to a sold-out house at the Redfern. He joined the professional company right after he graduated, and, though Pilobolus delights audiences everywhere it goes, being back at the Redfern was extra-special for Shawn. “It was a homecoming, in many ways,” he said. “Like when your team wins a home game, it was just that much better.”
Pilobolus, with its amazing, beautiful, and brilliant choreography, thrilled the audience and got a standing ovation for its breathtaking performance. As Edge observed, “These works are shrines to the power of the human body and the creativity of the human mind.” Obviously, the Pilobolus troupe maintains a rigorous training schedule to achieve such professional and artistic perfection, but we managed to catch Shawn during a well-deserved break after the show.
Q: What has been the highlight of your career since you joined Pilobolus?
Shawn: “The creative process has been the big highlight for me. I really enjoy creating, and creating collaboratively. It’s a joy to be part of such an intimate group of performers and professionals that I respect so whole heartedly, and working with equally professional outside artists we bring in regularly. It’s truly inspiring and keeps things fresh and flowing.”
Q: Your choreography is incredibly clever. How do you guys come up with that stuff?
Shawn: “The pieces that we create are a result of the people who are in the room at the time. Each person present has such a heavy influence on the choreographic process that the final product would be quite different if one person were added or subtracted.”
Q: Chris Bell ’11 has also been working with Pilobolus. How did he get involved with the company?
Shawn: “Chris is a tech theatre T&D alum. When he graduated, he was looking for an internship, so he came down to Connecticut and hung out with some of our staff. When we had a tech internship open up, our director called me and asked about Chris. I recommenced him, so we offered him the internship and he’s been with us the past year.”
Q: It’s easy to see that dancing with Pilobolus is physically demanding and must require a rigorous practice schedule. How long to people normally stay with the company?
Shawn: “Only one of the dancers who was with the company when it was at the Redfern in 2007 is still with the company. I joined in 2010. Members stay an average of five years. People leave for different reasons, but often it’s because they want to start families and spend more time at home with loved ones. We spend so much time on the road that it’s difficult to get settled.”
Q: Your routines are very physical and yet very precise. A misstep could lead to serious injury. How do you minimize that risk?
Shawn: In practice, we always have a spotter, or two or three. We do everything we can to make sure it’s as safe as possible, and we’re pretty good at it. One of the first things we learn in the company is how to fall and not get hurt. We roll around a lot. Injuries do happen; it’s part of the gig, but most of them are not traumatic injuries: They’re not from falling or hitting something, they’re from repetition—repetitive stress injury.”
Q: Do those routines require great physical strength, or do you rely more on a mastery of balance and leverage?
Shawn: “Technique is something you learn over time. The first 100 times you do something, you’re using mostly strength, but you learn how to be more efficient as you continue to do the moves and go through the choreography. When I first joined the company, I was overworking myself all the time. You don’t recognize it at first, and then you do recognize it but you can’t do anything about it. And then you recognize it and you can begin to do something about it, and then you look back and realize how inefficient you used to be. When we bring in new dancers, and you see yourself in them, and you try to tell them, ‘Oh, you’re doing way too much,’ but it’s hard to explain to someone. They have to feel it and figure it out for themselves. It’s hard to translate a physical, kinesthetic feeling into verbal language.”
Q: When you were a student at KSC, your training was in modern dance. Is that the best background for Pilobolus?
Shawn: “The great thing about modern dance is that the definition is so incredibly vague, so it allows a lot of interpretation, and therefore a lot of possibility. Since modern dance incorporates elements from all other dance styles, it gives you an incredible openness—you have the largest color palate from which to choose. But I feel that it’s your lifestyle that really separates you for Pilobolus. Your lifestyle has to have prepared you for the physicality and hard work. You have to have a strong work ethic, and a team spirit that leads you to value the community and the family unit. All these things are critical in Pilobolus. You have to have body intelligence, you have to be willing to work very hard, and you have to look out for the group, and I believe that has to be taught from a young age.
“You have to love to travel and be interested in different cultures. You have to be a cultural ambassador when we’re out on the road. We have to be the face, and the body, and the spirit of Pilobolus when we’re on tour. Our company expects us—and we expect each other—to represent the company positively. We’re a family in many ways; we’re very close. We spend so much time together: We live together and work together and show our respect for each other by representing our group well. And the demands of the work require us to keep a healthy body and a healthy mind.”
Q: Does everyone in Pilobolus come from a dance background?
Shawn: “This is the first time that everyone in the company has had some sort of formal dance training. But everyone has also had some other type of physical training: They played sports, or they did martial arts—something else that gives them information about their bodies that’s not just from a pure dance background. The more diverse your background, the better.”
Q: What kind of training do you do to keep in shape?
Shawn: “We dance 40 hours a week, and that’s enough training. Our repertoire is so varied that the work itself keeps you in pretty good shape. I stretch and do some exercises that keep my muscles from locking up, but our practice and performance is our main physical training.”
Q: Everyone on stage was such an impressive physical specimen—are you chosen for your physique or body type?
Shawn: “You have to be pretty physically fit to do the things we want to see at an audition, but everyone’s body changes pretty dramatically after they’ve been in the company. We have a tradition of taking a photo of a new member’s body his or her first day with the company then seeing how that body has changed a year later. The difference is always very impressive. We’re not lifting weights or running marathons, we’re just doing the work, but it really affects your physique.”
If you missed the show, or didn’t get enough of Pilobolus, check out their 2013 repertory: