Pilobolus brings home a spellbinding evening of dance

Pilobolus, the group founded at Dartmouth that recently performed during the Academy Awards, was featured in Moore Theater on Wednesday night.

That Pilobolus is a Dartmouth-born company seemed immediately evident as the curtain opened on their April 4 Hopkins center performance. Faced with six bodies clad in what can only be described as flair, I could think only one thing: glorified H Croo.

But the familiar costumed ridiculousness rapidly evolved into wildly unfamiliar territory as bodies stacked themselves three dancers high and tumbled down with cascading grace. In the world premier of “B’ZYRK,” the third in a series of works commissioned by the College, men lift men overhead with balletic ease, characters morph in a twirling menagerie of circus feats and squawking Russian instruments inspire a drunkenly undulating kick line.

Whether or not the “croo” phenomenon existed in the early 1970s, when Pilobolus’ artistic directors Jonathan Wolken ’71, Robby Barnett ’72 and Michael Tracy ’73 were students, is certainly questionable and ultimately irrelevant to ultimately powerful narrative of the almost operatic “B’ZYRK,” but Pilobolus nonetheless introduced and maintained an Dartmouth spirit throughout the duration of the evening’s performances. In this piece and the four that followed, balance, evolution, irreverence and creativity pervade, visually rendering a spectacle of human connection and possibility that is outside the realm of anything currently in existence.

“One of the wonderful things about being outside is that you can see and hear and feel yourself as you create,” Wolken, choreographer of “B’ZYRK,” said of the company’s existence beyond the limits of definition.

Creativity was indeed palpable, as pieces fluctuated between the biologically serene and the convulsively rocker.

Remaining constant, however, was the momentous strength of the dancer’s collaboration.

“The trick of good collaboration is the maintenance of eccentricity, of the individual,” Barnett said, and on the Moore stage individuality, if occasionally subsumed by muscular entanglement, was certainly maintained. The dancers adopted quiet degrees of personality that remained consistent from piece to piece — the self-consciously twitchy red head, the sensual contortionist, the dreadlocked shaker.

But in the end, each remained an undulating part of the whole organism. Pilobeans frequently employ biological metaphors in the process of self-description, and in some way it works. The movements themselves possess an integrated, organic quality, but the analogy also applies to the institution itself.

“Pilobolus has never been a hard-shelled concept like a clam with an exoskeleton. We want inside pressure on the membrane,” said Barnett, speaking on the dynamic nature of this hydro-headed company.

“We’ve stayed small — small creatures are fast and light on their feet, they take advantage of an opportunity when it presents itself,” Barnett said.

Flexible Pilobolus certainly is. “We rarely say no,” said Tracy, explaining how the initially minute dance company has expanded over the last thirty years to include a 7-person touring company; The Pilobolus Institute, an umbrella for all of the company’s educational programming; Pilobolus TOO, a duet company, and Pilobolus Creative Services, which facilitates creative coordination activity with outside commercial and artistic organizations.

“Not saying no” seems an adequate description of the pioneering and daring that has remained with Pilobolus since its infant days in Allison Chase’s Webster Hall studios.

“To stay [as] outside as [Pilobolus has] requires resilience, a certain toughness,” Tracy said.

This toughness, and what Barnett calls wholehearted “enthusiasm for movement through space,” is as evident in the voices of Pilobolus’ passionate directors as it is in its prolific manifestations on the stage. In “Gnomen,” four male figures glow luminously against a stark black backdrop, muscles rippling and contorting in an effortless joining of light and form.

2004’s “Megawatt,” by contrast, was an explosive synthesis of sound and movement — a horizontal mass frenetically slithering onto the stage, bodies reverberating like the strings of an electric guitar before finally exploding into a hyperactive, mechanical finale.

“Pseudopodia,” created in 1974 by Jonathan Wolken, was perfectly at home in a show comprised of more recent choreography, and the jaw-dropping acrobatics of Renee Jaworksi, its sole performer, were among the most breathtaking of the evening.

Pilobolus’ malleable vision is well guarded in the athletic possession of its current dancers and dedicated directors, whose commitment to their artistic philosophy will be hereafter preserved in the collections of Baker Library. Pilobolus will also be warmly remembered by those who enjoyed what Itamar Kubovy, the troupe’s executive director, described as “a week of coming home, looking back, and looking forward.”

Top Stories