Founded at Dartmouth College in 1971, Pilobolus is one of the best-known dance companies in the world. The troupe, famous for its combination of artistry and athleticism, has performed on both The Tonight Show and Sesame Street, and has made commercials for Toyota, Mobil Oil and Bloomingdale’s. Pilobolus has also completed features for the French, Danish, Chilean, Canadian, Bangladeshi and German national networks, and has toured extensively in the United States, Central and South America, the Middle East, Japan, Europe, Afghanistan, India and Russia. Not bad for a company started by two college dance students.
Moses Pendleton and Jonathan Wolkenwho were soon joined by Robby Barnett, Martha Clarke, Michael Tracy and Dartmouth dance teacher Alison Chasewere likely sparked by a zany undergraduate sense of humor in titling their new artistic venture: The troupe is named after a phototropic fungus Wolken encountered in his father’s biophysics lab. Nonetheless, “Pilobolus” has become the perfect label for a company that emphasizes organicism in its dancing and a homegrown variety of collaboration in every aspect of its existence, from choreography to management: “Masters of Ceremony,” which premiered at Manhattan’s Joyce Theater this summer, is a typical Pilobolus work in that it has more choreographers than performers. Despite frequent touring, the company’s four artistic directors and six dancers remain based in the small town of Washington Depot, Conn. Indeed, Pilobolus’ belief in the collective approach may well be responsible for both its creative and professional longevity.
The national tour that brings Pilobolus to Nashville this weekend celebrates the company’s 25th year, and the publicity poster bears a representative image: a cluster of arms and legs dressed in brightly splotched, perhaps tie-dyed, leotards and tights, connecting with each other to form what looks almost like a tumbling-style pyramid. But it is unclear, at first glance, whether there are two dancers here, or three. On closer examination, three feet, each wearing a different color ballet slipper, and three heads can be distinguished, though the long hair of a female dancer nearly obscures one of the male dancer’s profiles.
Thus, Pilobolus’ collaborative vision not only disposes of the usual hierarchies among a company’s dancers, it also takes pleasure in blurring every possible border between the dancers’ very bodies. In ballet and more traditional varieties of modern dance, for example, the ballerina or female soloist generally occupies the central position in a work; her male counterpart often appears merely as a visual or dramatic accessory. With Pilobolus, its name becomes a metaphor for its technique: The dancers often appear as barely discernible biomorphic shapes, moving in ways that the New York Times’ Anna Kisselgoff has described as “based on leverage and leaning, and, by extension, mutual support.” In the company’s weaker pieces, visual effects take precedence over substance; the Pilobolus choreographers seem to have trouble telling the difference, as Kisselgoff has pointed out, “between mankind and plant life.” But at its best, Pilobolus presents strange physical transformations that work as metaphors for deeper spiritual ones.
While whimsy has always played a large part in Pilobolus’ productions, its most recent works have developed beyond the tricky puns that often manifested themselves in the titles of earlier works. In years past, audiences have cheered pieces such as “Collideoscope” and “Debut C,” but a new suite of dances based on Finnegans Wake makes far greater use of drama and story, as does “Masters of Ceremony,” with its straightforward allusion to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
Repertory featuring two male performers is rare, but, as might be expected in an avant-garde company founded by men, Pilobolus has long challenged traditional gender roles. Indeed, for a recent Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Pilobolus directed a program entitled “Men Dancers,” a centennial celebration of the birth of modern dance legend Ted Shawn. The troupe was one of the first to use the now trendy unisex partnering.
Pilobolus has achieved its current level of acclaim through its ability to transfuse the popular with the primal. Music by Brian Eno and the Talking Heads provides the score for “Day Two,” for instance, a longish piece that uses nudity to underscore the neo-tribal aspects of its stage rituals. One of these rituals includes several variations on the move that has become a Pilobolus trademark: Two or three or four dancers converge and appear to form a single organism, then split and combine again. Critics have suggested that such physical motifs appeal to some ancient part of our midbrains, triggering cellular memories. But there’s more to the company’s success than its ability to target whatever part of our cortexes responds to lava lamps. Pilobolus has endured for 25 years because its artistic vision reflects a fascination with the shapes the human body can takeand with the shapes of our physical longing for each other.
Pilobolus performs as part of Vanderbilt’s Great Performances Series, 8 p.m. Nov. 11 in Langford Auditorium.
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