Monday, February 7, 2011

Guest Post by Nichelle Strzepek: P Is for Pilobolus

I am very excited that Nichelle Strzepek from the extremely popular website Dance Advantage has written the first guest post for Picture Books & Pirouettes. Here she reviews the picture book Pilobolus: The Human Alphabet, created by the famous dance company Pilobolus and by photographer John Kane. Over at Dance Advantage, Nichelle has written another post about the history of this quirky modern dance company. You can read it here.

My three-year-old son has had his entire alphabet down cold since he was about 16 months old. His enthusiasm for identifying and playing with letters has led to both early reading and writing. So, when I finally picked up a copy of Pilobolus: The Human Alphabet a number of months ago, it was with the assumption that the purchase would probably be more for me (a dancer, writer, and picture book enthusiast).

To my surprise (honestly, I shouldn’t have been), the little guy was immediately enthralled by the colorful and nearly wordless hardcover. The book features over 50 photographs by John Kane of the world-famous dance company Pilobolus. Even if you’ve never seen the artistic work of this nearly 40-year-old ensemble, it’s likely you’ve caught at least one of their TV commercials, appearances on late night TV, or perhaps the 2007 Academy Awards. Magical, morphing silhouettes are a Pilobolus calling card.

Though not in shadow, The Human Alphabet artwork is similarly… well, illustrative, with the dancers creating imaginative and sometimes bizarre depictions of animals and objects with nothing but their bodies.

The book begins with a simple instruction: “Here are 26 letters of the alphabet and 26 pictures – all made of people! Can you guess what each picture shows?” I suppose you can predict what follows.

In the corner of each page is a human alphabetical character, which is accompanied by a corresponding picture: dancers, clad in vibrant unitards, render something that starts with the appropriate letter.

Some of my favorites are the four-person Tyrannosaurus Rex, complete with gnashing teeth and two-fingered talons that represent Dinosaur; a human Ladder climbed by an impish dancer dressed in cherry red; and the two-page layout of a particularly puerile Parade.

Not all of the photos are immediately obvious. However, the book’s final pages list the anthropomorphized ABCs with the upper and lower-case printed letter and the word represented by each photo.

Creating body sculptures is the natural next step when exploring this book with children. Right away my son wanted to collaborate to form letters of the alphabet and, though sometimes frustrated by our height difference, he was quite satisfied with the result.

Next steps might include the designing of objects, concepts, or animals, as well as further exploration of Pilobolus and their work, including their use of silhouette. Shadow play is fun and educational. As it happens, my dance studio growing up had quite an active creative movement program for ages 3 through high school (and sometimes beyond). Perhaps an industrious dad helped build the large wooden frame with white fabric we used to explore shape, shadow, and relationships. I recall endless fascination with the possibilities a floodlit screen presented for the telling of both existing and original stories. Parents, what kinds of discoveries might you and your children make with a white bed sheet and a few high-watt lamps?

Nichelle Strzepek is a dance artist, teacher, and writer in Houston, Texas. She's spent over 16 years as a dance instructor, striving to pass on the knowledge and legacy of the art of movement to her students. Since the birth of her son in 2007, she has funneled her enthusiasm for dance training and education into her role as creator, writer, and editor of For and about dance students, teachers, and parents, Dance Advantage provides high quality information to supplement students’ in-class learning as well as inspire and support teachers in their work.

Wild About Nature is hosting Nonfiction Monday today. Find out about other educational books for kids there. And thanks again, Nichelle, for your wonderful post!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much, Kerry! I really enjoyed writing about this one and happy to be your first guest!


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