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Circle of dancers: members of Pilobolus Dance Theatre.

All the Moves That Fit
By Mae G. Banner

Pilobolus Dance Theatre
The 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 lift.

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 was born.

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 Egg.

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.

Wedlock 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 shape.

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.


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