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Flash Review 2, 6-26: Somber Fools
Angsty Antics from Pilobolus, Version '03

By Nancy Dalva
Copyright 2003 Nancy Dalva

NEW YORK -- One fine day some 32 years ago, a merry band of Dartmouth jocks -- inspired by their comely teacher Alison Becker Chase, who would soon abandon her academic position to join their ranks -- got together in a cow pasture on Walklyndon Farm in Vermont and gave a dance performance. Soon they got themselves another girl (named Martha Clarke) and decided to call themselves Pilobolus (after an indigenous fungus).Theirs was a group endeavor, the dance version of organic food and the commune. Everyone made every dance, in a collaborative and improvisational process that still, to some extent, persists. The Pilobolus spirit was antic, and they liked to take off their clothes.

Never forsaking their weird blend of the surreal and the silly, the originals super-grew their company into a popular and critically successful juggernaut. (It helped a lot that The New Yorker's Arlene Croce, the doyenne of all dance critics, fell head over heels in love with them, which believe me, wasn't hard, as they were madly entertaining off stage as well as on.) Starting with Momix (that would be short for Moses's mix, as in co-founder Moses Pendleton), Pilobolus spawned spin-offs. They made films. They did synergy before anyone knew about synergy, insinuating their works into the mainstream, including the repertoires of major ballet companies, and building a fan base around the globe. After all these years, motoring into the Joyce Theater this week for its annual summer season, Pilobolus still has a full head of steam, if a modified engine. Of the current artistic directors (three of whom have been there since the first year), two work alone, for the most part, two in tandem. Works are credited to these individuals, with a nod to the first casts who take part in their development. For the first week, they've hired a significant string quartet. But are they still crazy?

From the evidence of the opening program at the Joyce, seen Tuesday, no. Rather, Pilobolus is worried, melancholy, freighted with grief, and inclined to strange reproductive rituals. (Well, this last is nothing new.) The exception was the 1971 "Walklyndon," by four founders, Robby Barnett, Lee Harris, Moses Pendleton, and Jonathan Wolken, who wore purple satin boxer shorts over yellow leotards identical -- at least as I recall it-- to the ones worn now by Ras Mikey C, Otis Cook, Mark Fucik, Renee Jaworski, Matt Kent, and Jennifer Macavinta, who currently comprise the troupe. This is a silly dance, mostly pedestrian and slapstick, all on the transverse, and it is, in the current Pilobolite context, pointless, because the dancers are clearly dancers. Except for Chase, the founders were athletes (hence the boxers -- not underwear, but actually boxing-type garb) trying to let their inner dancers out, to comic effect. They had a kind of endearing rusticity, however faux. There's nothing rustic about the current crop.

In fact, for the silky first ten minutes of the program, I'd have believed it if you told me I was watching Doug Varone's troupe. The piece was "My Brother's Keeper" (2003), set by Michael Tracy (in collaboration, it is noted, with the cast of four) to dramatic, mournful music by Christopher Hatzis, who worked in concert with Pilobolus and the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Neil Peter Jampolis smartly lit the mostly dark stage with ladders of light on the floor, down spots, and such, as Ras Mikey C, Cook, Fucik and Jaworski paired up (and then later switched partners) and wreaked havoc on each other, in an orgy of dependency that turned nasty, parasitic and malignant, with a subsequent somewhat jaunty Cophueira section devolving into strange lifts and weird means of support.

This is typical Pilobolus -- someone draped over someone else's head, or being worn like a belt, or cantilevered upside down off a chest, or hung off the neck by an arm. With shifts in the score, the tone shifted -- though not as much as the music, which turned into a sultry Apache affair the St. Lawrence String Quartet swooped into like so many Gypsy violinists. Then the musicians yelled "Hey, Hey, Hey!!", the dancers did cartwheels, exchanged partners, and everything got all tragic. The dance ended in a constantly shifting figure (reminiscent of a beautiful passage in Twyla Tharp's "Sweet Fields," where the dancer was borne aloft) where one dancer was passed among the others and laid gently to rest on the floor, only to rise and circle back as the next dancer was being cradled passed along, and so forth. This took place in golden light.

There followed a "musical interlude," brief and sorrowing, of Jonathan Berger's "Eli Eli(In Memory of Daniel Pearl)," identified in the program as a recent work based on another work, J.K. Sandler's setting of a poem by Hannah Senesh, who died parachuting into Hungary to save Jews from the Holocaust. Then there was a bolt of thunder and lightening on the blacked-out stage, and "Symbiosis" (2001), another Tracey piece, began.

This is not the sort of thing I associated with Pilobolus -- elegies and lightening bolts and classical music -- but I do now. The St. Lawrence were absolutely wonderful. I'd see anything dance to them. (Of Canadian genesis but in residence since 1998 at Stanford, the quartet has upcoming New York appearances for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Carnegie's Weill Recital Hall, and will be in recital at the Metropolitan Museum in November. They record for EMI/Angel.)

"Symbiosis, " like the opening piece, could be about interdependency, but it mostly looks like the mating ritual of aliens. Cook is an exceptionally strong man -- perhaps the strongest I've seen since Paul Taylor's Elie Chaib -- who boasts an upper body with a lot of torque, like a muscular odalisque. Jaworski, his partner, is also exceptionally powerful. You spend a lot of time, at least I do, at Pilobolus thinking about how strong the performers are -- which in this case made them ideally suited for the piece's beautiful, sculptural stunts, which are like nothing you've ever seen before except what they've just done. This is the problem with Pilobolus: you're constantly assaulted by novelty, which quickly grows tedious. They've gone off on their own and invented a language, and it's rudimentary. It doesn't have a complex grammar, or much subtlety, and it doesn't lend itself to complex, highly evolved work, though it is certainly evolving. This was clear seeing "Walklyndon," which came next.

After intermission, the St. Lawrence played Tchaikovsky's Andante Contabile from the String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11 in D major, brilliantly chosen for it surprising relationship (in tone, and tonally) to the music for "Symbiosis," which included Thomas Obie Lee, Hatzis, Arvo Part, and Jack Brody. There followed Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8, Op. 110, the score for "Sweet Purgatory" (1991), a full company piece whose choreographers are Barnett, Chase, Tracy, and Wolken, in collaboration with the original cast.

The by now familiar elements, with lifts and standing on shoulders and the like, suggested some kind of striving upward, something angelic. Part way through, the atmosphere thickened as the fog machine ran amok, the house filling with what the fire department later characterized as a "dense haze." An alarm sounded. But the St. Lawrence played on, and Pilobolus danced on, to the faint, insistent beep of the smoke alarm, right up to the curtain calls. The 7th Battalion of the New York Fire Department meanwhile responded, fanning out into the house as the crowd dispersed. In the lobby, Chief Daniel Martinetion plaintively asked, "The fire alarm went off and not one of several hundred patrons exited?" No, not one. There are dancing fools, and then there are fools for dance.

Nancy Dalva is the senior writer for 2wice.

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