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Mutual trust: Pilobolus Too.

Without Illusions
By Mae G. Banner

Pilobolus Too

The Egg, Sept. 30

What you get with Pilobolus is a fusion of acrobatics, gymnastics, illusion, humor and mime, with a nod to the theatricality of modern dance. The original collective, founded in 1971, grew out of Alison Chase’s encouragement of Jonathan Wolken and Moses Pendleton, two athletic guys who happened to take her dance class at Dartmouth.

The troupe continues to evolve, changing shape like the light-seeking fungus for which it’s named. Over the years, Pilobolus has spun off founding dancers, absorbed new ones, and, in 1996, founded Pilobolus Too, a duo who perform scaled-down versions of the main group’s original works.

Now, what you get with Pilobolus Too is a display of acrobatics, gymnastics, humor and mime—but, not so much illusion. At least, that was the case when dancers Rebecca Darling and Matt Kent opened Dance Close, the Egg’s new series of chamber-sized ensembles presented in the 450-seat Swyer Theater.

Looking at these solos and duets up close is like opening the magician’s box and learning how he fooled you. The small thrust stage put Darling and Kent right in our faces, along with what should have been invisible props, like the strip of material on a rope (pulled by an offstage techie) that allowed Darling to glide mysteriously across the stage.

In the absence of illusion, there was still plenty to admire, notably Pilobolus Too’s amazing technical control; their steely bodies, nearly bared in the final dance; their strong focus; and their completely trusting relation to each other in dangerous lifts, cantilevers and changes of weight. Both Kent and Darling gave themselves totally to the flow of movement.

The pair danced an astutely-chosen set of six Pilobolus works that covered the period from 1975 to 1999. All were choreographed collaboratively by the founders and the original performers, including Robby Barnett and Michael Tracy.

The program opened and closed with two “primordial ooze” duets, Alraune (1975) and Shizen (1978), in which the dancers’ limbs intertwined to make crab-like shapes or wrapped around their chests like coils of clay. In Alraune, the two sat butt to belly on the floor, legs drawn up, and Darling, tucked up on Kent’s lap, stroked her bent knees—only, they were Kent’s knees.

In Shizen, the dancers mirrored each other’s moves, very slowly curling and unfolding, proceeding to compact frog-jumps and six-limbed crab-walks, as if they were re-enacting eons of evolution. Comparatively small next to the martial arts-trained Kent, Darling could lift him, while he could balance her on his back or whirl her rigid body around and around over his head like a vaulter spinning his pole.

Two solos showed the humorous side of Pilobolus. Darling danced Femme Noire (1999) as an Erte fashion plate come to satiric life. In a long black gown with a thigh-high slit, she hid her face behind a black straw hat with an enormous brim, while she used her hands to shove her body into elegant poses. The joke was that she could not tame a butt that had a mind of its own.

The best-realized dance of the night was Kent’s solo, an excerpt from The Empty Suitor (1980). Placed next to closing, Suitor had true vaudeville style. Kent, in top hat and black jacket, balanced precariously on four rollers as he tried, with goofy dignity and determination, to retrieve his fallen hat. He maneuvered a walking stick, got entrapped in the slats of a park bench, alternated pratfalls, splits, and amazing recoveries, all to the real jazz of Ben Webster’s “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Suitor had everything: theatrical movement, emotion, skill, and a direct link to the captivated audience.

Two high-concept duets, Televisitation (1985) and an excerpt from Land’s Edge (1986), put the dancers through dramatic and gymnastic paces. Televisitation was Kent’s dream of a beautiful blonde Darling. But,the dream became a nightmare as the angel turned into an incubus who attacked the sleeper. She held him in a headlock so tight it took a somersault to dislodge her. They waltzed and spun, but whenever Kent seemed to have mastered Darling, she shifted her weight and threw him to the ground.

Land’s Edge turned the tables, putting Kent in charge. He did a rubber-doll dance with crossed ankles as he contemplated the inert Darling. He rolled her over and over, using his teeth and head, and pushed her to her feet, but her limp body fell in on him. Wonderfully textured and layered costumes by Lawrence Casey and delicate music by Paul Sullivan added depth to this dance of discovery that ended with a high lift, and amazing whirl, and an embrace.

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