of dancers: members of Pilobolus Dance Theatre.
the Moves That Fit
Mae G. Banner
Egg, Nov. 20
Pilobolus, the athletic dance company named for a hardy fungus,
has gone through many changes of personnel over its 32 years,
but the company’s structure and collaborative way of working
remain the same.
They are still six bodies—four men whose training ranges from
theater to martial arts, but pointedly doesn’t include dance—and
two sylphlike, dance-trained women. The men look like they
could work on construction jobs and the women look easy to
This is the configuration Pilobolus began with in 1971 at
Dartmouth, when four guys enrolled in Alison Chase’s dance
class, just for the heck of it, and a cultural phenomenon
The original members, Robby Barnett, Jonathan Wolken, Chase,
and Michael Tracy (who replaced Moses Pendleton in 1974) are
still the artistic directors of Pilobolus, which performed
a set of quirky dances—two new and two old—Nov. 20 at the
The group has maintained their insistence on collaborative
choreography. Typically, one or more of the directors are
listed on the program as choreographers, their names followed
by the cast of dancers/collaborating choreographers who first
performed the work. The current performers, who may be a completely
different cast, are not listed. Their names appear elsewhere
in the program.
For Pilobolus, collaboration means, “Let’s get into the studio
and try out some ideas. How many ways can we leverage a lift,
drop, and roll? How many bodies can we pretzel together and
how many ways can we get untangled?” The dances grow from
essays in contact improvisation, so that whatever works becomes
part of the show.
Since every body moves differently, it must be difficult for
new members to take on roles that were molded on their predecessors.
This isn’t like ballet or modern dance, where you can learn
the steps. It’s more like physics, where you have to take
the weight and transfer the energy.
Maybe that’s why, for me, the final dance, Sweet Purgatory
(1991) saved the program. Made by the four artistic directors
and a cast now gone, and set to Shostakovich’s String Quartet
No. 8 (the one with the ominous sound of three knocks
at the door), this was the danciest work of the evening.
One dancer, body twisting, raised a balletic arm, while two
men eddied behind her in semi-darkness. Pairs of men lifted
a woman high or placed her on one man’s thigh and did slow,
velvety turns. Under rose or lemon light, the men lifted the
women, set them down on their bellies, rolled them slowly
onto their backs, and raised them only to their knees in a
slow, weighted passage that was as tender as any coupling
in a Paul Taylor dance.
In Sweet Purgatory, Pilobolus showed harmony, balance,
order, and emotional connection with the music.
In The Brass Ring, commissioned for the 2002 Olympics,
Wedlock (2003), and their signature piece, Walklyndon
(1971), they were going more for circus thrills and laughs.
The healthy scattering of kids in the audience were tickled
by Walklyndon, in which four dancers traverse the stage
in silence, weaving and colliding, falling down and gamely
getting back up, like loopy pedestrians on a very crowded
street. It’s a comic-book dance, a clever spoof on modern
life, and just long enough.
was funny to the kids, but mostly grating or puzzling to me.
In eight short duets to soft rock music, various couplings
insult each other in unpleasant ways. There’s a man who drags
a woman across the floor; a dominatrix in an apron and white
gloves, who makes a man crawl; and a pair of guys who turn
a mutual strangulation into a buddy-hug.
The deepest of the duets paired Manelich Minniefee and Renee
Jaworski in a drama of salvation and loss. She’s crumpled
on the ground in a quivering heap. He’s touched and curious.
He bends to lift her, but at every touch, her body jerks into
a silent scream. Finally, he pulls her up and she moves on,
leaving him twisted and fallen in a duplicate of her original
The concert opened with the bright and circusy Brass Ring,
chiefly choreographed by Tracy to a nice mix of music by Aaron
Copland, Scott Joplin and Gabriel Faure, plus old blues. All
six dancers in pastel-painted leotards became human carnival
rides, merry-go-rounds or Ferris wheels, infernal machines
of levers and gears in a colorful, muscular display. They
were strongmen, clowns, and, in one riff, they morphed into
a card table with a game in progress.
Finally, to the Faure, their leverage became lyrical. With
its color, muscle, circus fun and trapeze skills, Brass
Ring is a dance for the child in all of us.