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JONATHAN WOLKEN'S OBIT FROM
THE NEW YORK TIMES
The cause was complications of a stem cell transplant Mr. Wolken underwent in April, his wife, JoAnne Torti, said. He had been ill with myelofibrosis, a bone marrow disease, for some time.
Founded in 1971 by Mr. Wolken and Moses Pendleton, classmates at Dartmouth whose combined dance experience was practically nil, Pilobolus was beyond category from the first. The troupe, which by the mid-’70s included four men and two women, was known for its antic visual wit; unbridled, even slapstick athleticism; and periodic lack of clothing.
At his death, Mr. Wolken was one of three artistic directors of the company, based in Washington Depot, Conn.
The Pilobolus style incorporates dance, gymnastics, performance art and shadow play but is not strictly any of these. It employs the human body as pure sculptural matter, with dancers linking and unlinking, twisting and tumbling to create an ever-changing series of forms, many evocative of the natural world.
The style split the critics. Many lavished praise on Pilobolus. Others were bewildered, even hostile. As Alastair Macaulay, the chief dance critic of The New York Times, wrote in 2007, “I know of no dance company that so divides viewers.”
Pilobolus was always popular with audiences, however. The troupe has performed in television commercials and on many shows (a televised appearance at the Kennedy Center won an Emmy Award in 1997); at the 2007 Academy Awards, where it enacted writhing interpretations of recent films (“Snakes on a Plane” was especially felicitous); and on stages throughout the United States and the world.
In New York, Pilobolus has long been an annual fixture at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea. This year’s engagement, which begins on July 12, Mr. Wolken’s birthday, will be dedicated to his memory.
Mr. Wolken, who stopped dancing in his mid-30s, continued to choreograph for the company until shortly before his death. (Though Pilobolus dances spring from improvisation by the whole troupe, at least one choreographer is responsible for the finished product.) Works he choreographed include “Razor: Mirror” (2008), “B’zyrk” (2007) and “Pseudopodia” (1973).
Abraham Jonathan Wolken was born in Pittsburgh on July 12, 1949. His father was a biophysicist, and as a teenager Jonathan helped him in his lab. There he encountered Pilobolus, a tiny, energetic genus of fungus that turns toward the light and shoots its spores many feet through the air.
At Dartmouth, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1971, Mr. Wolken took a dance class taught by the choreographer Alison Chase; Mr. Pendleton was also in the class. At its inception, Pilobolus comprised the two men plus Robby Barnett and Lee Harris. (Ms. Chase and Martha Clarke joined the company in 1973; Michael Tracy replaced Mr. Harris in 1974.)
“None of us wanted to go into the corporate world,” Mr. Wolken told The Monterey County Herald in 2009. “We created a circus and then ran off and joined it.”
In December 1971, the original four men gave their first New York performance, at a Manhattan dance studio. Reviewing it in The Times, Anna Kisselgoff wrote, “The group displayed amazing physical fearlessness, humor, inventiveness and unselfconsciousness.”
Mr. Wolken’s first marriage ended in divorce. Besides Ms. Torti, he is survived by a daughter from his first marriage, Sarah Wolken; Ms. Torti’s three daughters, Alyssa, Jenna and Emily Robb; a brother, Eric; and two sisters, Ann Wolken and Johanna Zorn.
Despite its popularity, Pilobolus, like many arts organizations, has felt a continuing need to expand its fan base. “We have groupies in the best sense of the word, people who come to 20 or 30 shows or more,” Mr. Wolken told The Seattle Times in 1991. “But we don’t have people screaming, or pulling off our clothes.”
He added: “We try to appeal to that under-20 audience that would pull off our clothes and pound on the limousine windows. But we don’t have a limo.”