Chewy Soup

The Rich, Nourishing Images of Pilobolus

by Stephanie Beauchamp There is a bottom where you thought there was a top. An arm is where a leg is supposed to be. One body is really two. What you thought was black and white is really the color wheel of Pilobolus Dance Theatre. For almost 25 years, this uniquely physical and acrobatic company (named for an intelligent, light-sensitive, single-celled phototropic fungus that flourishes in New England barnyards) has remained perched on the edge of modern dance, pleasing and exciting audiences and remaining one step ahead of the game. The long success and popularity of Pilobolus is due to their trademark illusionistic use of the body, which is worked like a paintbrush to create strange abstract strokes and shapes and things not remotely human against a canvas that resembles some hot, gaseous planet that Captain Jean-Luc might investigate. The beauty of Pilobolus' pieces is that, whatever they're about, you are guaranteed to see not only that in them, but lots of other things as well. Dancers' bodies transform, most convincingly, from the human shape into everything, anything: a blob, a bird, Superman. No telling.

What Pilobolus does has been termed everything from pop dance to theatre to mime to sculpture. It's hard to pin down because there is no other dance company that really does what they do (except maybe MOMIX, but it developed out of Pilobolus). Like its fungal namesake, Pilobolus is a species unto itself. The Los Angeles Times may have put it best when it noted, "Piloboli create their own gravity, establish their own vocabulary of abstraction. Complicated geometric patterns sprout and grow organically. Wondrous shapes emerge, merge, split, and remerge." To say Pilobolus is a visual and intellectual feast is somewhat of a cliché: It is something for the mind to see and the eye to eat.

"It's a strange creature, Pilobolus," says Jonathan Wolken, one of the troupe's four artistic directors. "I think we've always defied definition. It's motion that speaks to you and it's often very powerful. It can be tremendously pleasing or downright upsetting."

Wolken describes the troupe's process of sculpting dances as a pendulum that swings back and forth between pieces with a "thinly veiled story" and those that are more emotional and serious in nature. Both ends of this spectrum will be represented in the five pieces in their performance this week at the UT Performing Arts Center. Because he prefers the audience to come to the performance "with a sense of momentous performance excitement," Wolken reveals little about the work in the program. He only notes that the male quartet, Particle Zoo, is a "wildly physical piece" and Duet, choreographed for two women, is on the emotional end of the pendulum. Quatrejeux, another quartet, is referred to as fun, and, intriguingly, as "the froth on the cappuccino." The male duet Pyramid of the Moon contains a "thinly veiled story," and Sweet Purgatory is the program's most emotionally developed and serious piece, created to Dimitri Shostakovich's "Chamber Symphony, Opus 110a."

When asked about the origins of Pilobolus' dances, Wolken replies, "You go with what goes. You move with what moves you. You respond to what stimulates you, and that's always been Pilobolus' way....

"I think we do respond to visual, graphic impact. We start with visual stimuli. We want people to sit up and watch this stuff. We want people to be stimulated, moved. Our job is to create something that is evocative: an image that is powerful. Very few of our dances are abstract, kinetic movement, where the shapes only are being represented. I think what moves us now are things that are generally evocative, where the emotion is overlaid by a thick larding of nuance and theatre. And somehow these together make a rich, nourishing soup; some-thing that excites the eye and makes you want to look at it. Something to chew on."

Pilobolus was born in 1971 at Dartmouth College, finding quick success opening for Frank Zappa at a Smith College concert, then on the PBS television series Dance in America. At the birth of the company, its members soon discovered that no one knew how to do anything, so they developed a natural collaborative system among themselves for not only the creation of the dances but the other commonplace essentials of the company such as booking, touring, and paying bills. "All that learning evolved and enriched itself and grew and became more mature, but never went away," says Wolken. "The present collaboration of the company is an outgrowth of that early mold. I still do a lot of the things I used to do. The original artistic directors have changed slightly over the years, but we maintain our stewardship.

"Our dancers have taken over some of the mantles that we used to. We rely on them - as all choreographers rely on their dancers - for intellect and wit, and what I call movement intelligence. We expect them to be excellent dancers and intelligent people, and the way we credit that is as our collaborators. But it is [the artistic directors'] job to craft and shape, and in every sense of the word choreograph, and to sculpt the work on stage."

Despite a quarter century of bizarre, fan-tastical shaping of dancing fungi, Wolken insists, "We are very much regular people. We are eclectic in every sense of the word. We're all over the map. We are interested (maybe interesting) people, variously intellectual, and wildly interested in all kinds of subjects. It's not a narrow approach. I'm interested in life. I'm interested in the pursuit of happiness.

"Pilobolus is a creature of a different kind. Pilobolus grew out of our interests. And, in all modesty, in the end, finally, we do what we do. We do the best we can. We do our best to make beautiful, intriguing dances."n Pilobolus Dance Theatre performs Sep 23, Sat, 8pm, at the Bass Concert Hall on the UT campus.

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