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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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