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Jonathan Wolken; founded Pilobolus dance troupe

Choreographer Jonathan Wolken (in back) with dancers Mark Fucik and Renee Jaworski in New York’s Joyce Theater in 2004. Choreographer Jonathan Wolken (in back) with dancers Mark Fucik and Renee Jaworski in New York’s Joyce Theater in 2004. (Sara Krulwich/New York Times)
By Margalit Fox
New York Times / June 18, 2010

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NEW YORK — Jonathan Wolken — a nondancer who four decades ago helped found a dance troupe, named it after a fungus, and watched gleefully as the Pilobolus Dance Theater became one of the most popular modern-dance companies in the world — died Sunday in Manhattan. He was 60 and lived in Washington, Conn.

The cause was complications of a stem cell transplant Mr. Wolken underwent in April, said his wife, JoAnne Torti. He had been ill for some time with myelofibrosis, a bone marrow disease.

Founded in 1971 by Mr. Wolken and Moses Pendleton, athletically inclined Dartmouth classmates whose combined dance experience was almost 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.

Critics were split over the style. Many lavished praise on Pilobolus. Others were bewildered, even hostile. As Alastair Macaulay, the chief dance critic of The New York Times, wrote, “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. This year’s engagement, which begins July 12, Mr. Wolken’s birthday, will be dedicated to his memory.

Mr. Wolken, who danced with Pilobolus until 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. 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; Pendleton was also in the class. At its inception, Pilobolus included the two men, as well as Robby Barnett and Lee Harris. (Chase and Martha Clarke joined the company in 1973; Michael Tracy replaced 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.’’

“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,’’ Mr. Wolken told The Seattle Times in 1991.