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The Dance is Grueling, But His Face Is Serene Jun Kuribayashi thrives with Pilobolus

By LAUREN KAY

 

Even if you've never seen Pilobolus perform on stage, you've probably seen their blend of acrobatics, shadow shaping, and dance: perhaps in the Ford "Human Car" commercial, where the company's dancers swirl into the shape of a sedan, or maybe on Conan O'Brien's show, where they morphed into the talk show host's recognizable face.

Now is the time to fully experience their work: Pilobolus is onstage at the Joyce Theater through August 6th.

Jun Kuribayashi, company veteran and dance captain, is central in executing the troupe's trademark shapes with electricity, strength and elegance. In Psuedopodia by Jonathan Wolken, he completes a series of continuous somersaults before elegantly shifting into a one-legged, crouched pose, his arms waving elegantly in horizontal lines like the tentacles of a jellyfish. After completing another series of backward rolls---without ever putting his hands on the ground---he gently tips back into a folded table top, his back undulating again. Though the series is physically unforgiving, Kuribayashi's face remains serene and focused, and his presence is regal.

This unique movement is part of what Kuribayashi loves about his artistic home. "If you want to see something that's dance but not necessarily in the classical term, Pilobolus is for you," he says. "We'll do four to six pieces in a program, and they're all different. During our creative process, we have to watch what we're making a hundred times in rehearsal, so if it's not entertaining to us, it won't even make it to the stage."

Though Kuribayashi now has a huge hand in creating danceworks, he was a late arrival to the art form. Originally from Japan, he moved to Lawrence, Kansas at five years old and enjoyed martial arts and swimming throughout an athletic childhood. After opting out of a swimming scholarship at University of Kansas, he bounced between various passions including computer technology and psychology before realizing he couldn't settle on a major. He took a year off and discovered Capoeira, a Brazilian form of martial arts. "The director of the dance department, Joan Stone, saw me when I taught a master class in Capoeira at the university," he recalls. "She told me I needed to go dance for them, so I decided to give it a try and go back to school as a dance major. I took my first ballet class then, at 22, and was in a ballet piece two weeks later!"

Kuribayashi initially majored in dance because "the guy-to-girl ratio was incredible," but he became fascinated by the challenge of performing and the way it engaged his body. "I had a love-hate relationship with jazz class because I'm not an isolated mover and I get lost with a wink, tap, and snap," he says with his cheerful, self-deprecating laugh. "But I enjoyed ballet class. It was embarrassing and humbling at first, but the competitive side of me said, 'I love movement, and I love the challenge.' As a kid, I was like a monkey, climbing up trees. Watching male dancers, I saw they were turning and jumping vertically, whereas I was used to horizontal flips. It was impressive to me."

Master teachers soon encouraged Kuribayashi to pursue a dance career, which led to a Pilobolus audition the summer of 2004, just before his senior year. "I auditioned just for fun, thinking I wouldn't make it through, not knowing they were the same company I adored two years earlier at their performance in Kansas," he says. "Halfway through, I realized it was the same troupe." After a week of callbacks, Kuribayashi had the job, and he completed his final year of college through on-site work with Pilobolus in New York City.

Seven years later, Kuribayashi is still being challenged, and he has endured everything from a dislocated shoulder to an onstage fainting spell due to altitude sickness. "They say the military ages you times a couple of years: Pilobolus is the same way," he says. "You stay young physically because you're so active and challenged, but so much happens in a year, between touring, 150 performances, and finding the energy to be a dance captain. It's an honor, but it's like being a parent sometimes."

Despite these difficulties, which also include spending months away from his wife while he's on tour, Kuribayashi says the Pilobolus experience has fulfilled his dreams of performing. After he leaves the troupe—perhaps after next year's Joyce season—he may retire from the stage altogether. "I'm at the top in terms of how and where I want to express myself creatively without compromising," he says. "It's so hard to walk away from a company that's done so much for me and even think of going anywhere else. They've talked me out of retiring before and there's nowhere I'd rather dance anyway. I've lived a rock star life because of Pilobolus, and at 33, if it ended tomorrow, I'd be satisfied."

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Lauren Kay is a writer and dancer based in New York