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Jonathan Wolken dies at 60; a co-founder and artistic director of Pilobolus Dance Theater

Wolken began Pilobolus after graduating from Dartmouth College in 1971. The troupe created works in a free-spirited group dynamic combining athleticism, sensuality and theatricality.

June 17, 2010|From Times staff and wire reports
  • Dancers form a backdrop behind Jonathan Wolken of the Pilobolus Dance Theater in New York in 2004. Pilobolus created works that became known for their athleticism, sensuality and theatricality.
Dancers form a backdrop behind Jonathan Wolken of the Pilobolus Dance Theater… (Sara Krulwich / The New York…)

Jonathan Wolken, one of the co-founders, artistic directors and driving forces of the Pilobolus Dance Theater, which became internationally known for its combination of modern dance, gymnastics and performance art, has died. He was 60.

Wolken died Sunday night at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York of complications from a stem cell transplant. A resident of Washington, Conn., where the dance troupe is based, Wolken suffered from myelofibrosis, a disorder of the bone marrow.

Pilobolus — named after a fungus Wolken researched in his father's biophysics lab — originated when, as a philosophy major at Dartmouth College, he and fellow student Moses Pendleton met at a dance class taught by Alison Chase. The men began performing after graduation in 1971 and were later joined by fellow students Robby Barnett and Michael Tracy and dance teachers Martha Clark and Chase in 1973. They would form an unusual artistic collaborative that produced works in a free-spirited group dynamic.

The company relocated from New Hampshire to western Connecticut in the mid-'70s. First Clark in 1978 and then Pendleton in 1983 would move on to create their own dance companies, but the quartet would remain for many years creating works that became known for their athleticism, sensuality and theatricality. The company performed many times over the years at various Southern California venues.

"They attracted a cross-over audience, with some regular dance-goers but also a lot of people who don't regularly attend dance performances," Martin Wechsler, the director of programming at New York's Joyce Theater, said last year in a Times article. "I think they've helped introduce a lot of people to dance."

In addition to his work with Pilobolus, Wolken choreographed productions of Maurice Sendak's " Where the Wild Things Are." A collaboration between Pilobolus and Sendak was the subject of a 2002 documentary by Mirra Bank, "Last Dance."

Wolken's role with the company most recently was that of development director, focusing on fundraising, but he continued to choreograph. His latest piece created this year, "Hitched," will be performed when the company plays its annual monthlong run at the Joyce Theater on July 12, which would have been Wolken's 61st birthday.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1949, Wolken as a youth experimented in the lab of his father, noted biophysicist Jerome Jay Wolken.

As recently as last year before a production at the Ahmanson Theatre, Jonathan Wolken was describing his continuing enthusiasm for the dance company.

"I may not be as young as I was, but I still feel juiced," he said in a Times article. "Still crazy after all these years, I suppose…a different crazy maybe, but still crazy."

Survivors include his wife, JoAnne; and four daughters.

news.obits@latimes.com

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