What happened to that wildly inventive, sly, gymnastic, gender-bending, highly theatrical, choreographic quartet from Dartmouth College that named itself after an obscure barnyard fungus? Pilobolus burst upon the national dance scene in the mid-1970s with creative explorations of movement possibilities, most notably how bodies could be pretzeled into so many unusual positions and combinations: I see three heads, five feet, and two torsos, but I know there are four dancers on stage - how did they do that?
Well, things change, and so clearly has Pilobolus. In their disappointing Thursday night, Oct. 25, program at the University of Washington's Meany Hall, the first of three sold-out concerts, there was only one real winner, "Rushes," an intriguing dance theater gem. That work was not a Pilobolus-only creation, but rather the first major collaboration between them and outside choreographers, in this case the Israeli artists Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak.
Pilobolus developed from a dance class taught by Alison Chase at Dartmouth College. Four young men – Jonathan Wolken, Lee Harris, Moses Pendleton, and Robby Barnett – emerged from that experience motivated to explore collectively and individually their movement identities. They formed Pilobolus in 1971, with Chase joining in 1973 and another Dartmouth alum, Michael Tracy, a year later. The company has always operated as a collective, based in Washington Depot, Conn. Over the years key members have left, and the current artistic directors are Wolken, Barnett, and Tracy.
Collectives are complex and temperamental beasts, and Pilobolus has not been without its share of troubles: financial crises, departures of founding members, internal personality conflicts, the hiring of a controversial first executive director, the retirement of the artistic directors from active performing. In 2006 came perhaps the worst crisis, a rupture with Alison Chase, "the mother of Pilobolus," as she called herself, who was dismissed from the group over artistic differences and her claims of ownership of her choreography.
Through it all, Pilobolus has continued to make new work, garner critical acclaim, remain a major touring company, receive commissions, and grow enormously popular with the public. A new generation of dancers now performs the company's works.
Pilobolus has also become a mini-industry with an educational wing that teaches and gives workshops on creativity, a smaller touring unit, and, through Pilobolus Creative Services, television commercial production. It offers live events for corporations and made an appearance at this year's Academy Awards. Not bad for four guys from Dartmouth.
Critics of the troupe have always accused them of being glorified gymnasts, too immature in their theatrical vision and not deep enough to make profound art. I never saw it that way and was always impressed by their movement explorations, creative process, and inventive choreography and staging.
I hadn't seen the company in a very long time, so I was puzzled why the most recent works created by Pilobolus seemed so uninspired. Was it just some curious quirk of programming that didn't show their repertoire at its best? Perhaps the company's collective process has after 36 years run its course? Maybe this is a transitional time at middle age, especially after the Alison Chase debacle, before a new flowering of creativity? Or perhaps the commercialization of their product through touring, corporate work, creative workshops, and the like have compromised their impulse for originality, making the work accessible to everyone, but with not much daring?
"B'zyrk" opened the evening, choreographed by Jonathan Wolken in collaboration with a host of Pilobolus dancers. Its six performers are dressed in caps, pantaloons, skirts, bloomers, and the like, inspired it would seem by early circus dress and commedia dell'arte. With a wonderful musical collage that evoked a slightly seedy and offbeat world, including the terrific neo-Tom Waits Russian rock band, Leningrad, the clown-like dancers combined hunched over and jerky, at times almost spasmodic movement with lots of mugging.
They portrayed an eccentric universe illustrating the lives of performers always having to be "on" before a crowd, not to mention with each other. But it was a dance ultimately done in by its own cutesiness, and whose movement and mime overwhelmed rather than explicated its concept.
The program closed with another untitled new work by Wolken and dancer collaborators, unfortunately bearing too many similarities to "B'zyrk" It did have the pleasure, though, of a lovely staging technique. Two dancers opening and closing a downstage curtain, revealing and unrevealing the performers on-stage, as if in a doll-house or some special little place all of their own that we are being invited into for just a few moments.
Oddly enough, the Inbal/Pollak piece, "Rushes," had some of the same qualities of the two works just described; hunched-over dancers as if pressed down by a very low ceiling or the realities of their own lives, a closed universe, and a musical collage. I was inexorably drawn into this mystery world. Much of the action takes place on a white circle planted center stage with small wooden chairs around its periphery. This area is peopled by five strange creatures dressed in black who seem to know each other but often act as if they don't. A figure in an ochre-colored cutaway with its long tails flying and carrying a briefcase intrigues them and us. At one point the dancers "fall" into his briefcase, he covers them with a white cloth that converts into a projection screen. He lies back against the case's opened top and all type of oddball images appear on the screen: Is this his dream, or that of the people in black?
This little community gradually moves out into space, often using the chairs as props to walk upon, be enveloped in, or to delineate their world. Our eyes are drawn to one area of the stage, only to belatedly notice something has already begun somewhere else. One particularly exquisite sequence has a woman drawn around the stage by men in various inventive ways with her feet sliding on the floor as if she were on ice skates.
I don't pretend to know the meaning of this work, and I expect 10 people would give 10 interpretations, but whatever world the choreographers were creating, it was an evocative and compelling one with a number of exquisite visual images. Yoann Tivoli's lighting design contributed much to the power of the piece.
Two works completed the evening's program; a slight love duet by Michael Tracy, "Persistence of Memory," and Jonathan Wolken's 1973 solo, "Pseudopodia." Here dancer Jun Kuribayashi explores various ways the body can make contact with the floor through rolls, somersaults, and jackknifed and pitched body positions. I like to imagine Wolken over 34 years ago, locked in a studio for hours trying to figure out the myriad ways his body could express what he wanted. That inquisitiveness and eagerness to rigorously plumb the unknown was so indicative of Pilobolus in years past. I missed these qualities on this program.
As always, with its large stage, wide seating area and good sightlines, Meany Hall was a lovely place to see a dance performance.