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Flash Review 2, 7-5: Pilobolus New
The Cool, the Tricky, the Sublime
By Byron Woods
Copyright 2001 Byron Woods
DURHAM, North Carolina -- The latest
works from Pilobolus Dance Theatre, seen last month at Page Auditorium, are a
mixed but colorful bag. At their strongest, choreographers Robby Barnett, Jonathan
Wolken, Michael Tracy and Alison Chase (and their dancer collaborators) use their
by-now trademark acrobatics and experiments in shared balance to tell compelling
stories that probe the interior aspects of relationships, spirituality and communities.
But the temptations of tech -- stage
technology and artistic technique, both of which this troupe has in significant
amounts -- can never be entirely factored out of the Pilobolean equation. When
flashy maneuvers and admittedly impressive tricks become an end unto themselves,
the ensemble runs the risk of forsaking the dance and the theater for the sideshow
at the carnival. It happened more than once during its engagement in Durham.
Both Chase's new "Monkey and the
White Bone Demon" and her returning "Tsu-Ku-Tsu" (both created in collaboration
with the dancers) fall prey to varying degrees to cool tricks and neat techniques.
"Monkey" opened the first night's concert with an overinflated, near-vaudevillian
retelling (presumably for children) of a Chinese story about Sun Wukong, the Monkey
King. Little more than a choreographic problem-solving exercise concerning individual
and group navigation of stage space using eight foot rubber-tipped poles, the
evening's performance was further marred by sloppy execution, Paul Sullivan's
turgid music and a still-awkward closing sequence with demon Matt Kent on chrome
stilts. Not the Pils' finest hour by far.
"Tsu-Ku-Tsu," a collaboration with
Japanese taiko drummer Leonard Eto, boasted patented Pilobolus moves, but to questionable
effect. Otis Cook and Gaspard Louis's near-nude mid-work duet made an interesting
study in balance and visual contrast, but overall the piece never coalesced into
anything beyond a series of stage pictures of varying complexity.
By contrast, this season's other
two premieres showed the troupe's considerable strengths. The duet "Symbiosis,"
Michael Tracy's collaboration with dancers Renee Jaworski and Otis Cook, probed
the tentative inner balance of a relationship -- a balance as tentative as the
one both dancers maintained, against all odds, in their pensive contact piece.
To the eerie cantabulations of music by George Crumb, Arvo Part, Jack Body and
Thomas Oboe Lee, Jaworski and Cook crawled into each other's space, their characters
seeking comfort, rest, refuge at different times anywhere on the surface of the
other. At points they hang, precariously, from the other's arms, chest, shoulders
and torso -- and clearly gaze into an abyss which is avoided only by constant
contact with the other. Such moments give "Symbiosis" emotional and dramatic authority,
and make it a keen study in human relationships.
Similarly, "Davenen," the company's
large-hearted collaboration with the band the Klezmatics, examined not the interior
nature of prayer so much as its still substantial surface, in interactions in
a small community of humans. A clump of humanity at the start spits out a kid
(Cook) who quickly, amusingly grows into a man who just as quickly falls prey
to the distractions of the flesh. The world is too much with the ones who pray
in this diverse work -- their rocking meditations and seizures of ecstatic prayer
are just as regularly interrupted in different episodes by others with commerce,
romance or other things on their mind. But the balance of faith, practice, and
the affairs of life give this work its tension and much of its joy. It's dance,
and it's theater; witty and wise. In short, it's the reason we go to see Pilobolus.
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