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Flash Flashback, 6-20: Can you do that inverted retrograde slinky again?
Fear and Loathing with the Fungus

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 1998, 2006 The Dance Insider

(The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Archive. This article first appeared in the Dance Insider's inaugural Summer 1998 print issue as its cover story, and is today posted online for the first time.)

WASHINGTON DEPOT, Connecticut -- You are Maria Schneider, one of your generation's most heralded jazz composers. At 37 you have already worked with giants like Gil Evans and Toots Thielemans. "Evanescence," the debut release of your 17-piece jazz orchestra earned two Grammy nominations. Just when you think things couldn't possibly get better, you receive a call from Billy Taylor, the legendary composer and pianist, who offers you $10,000 to write a composition for a dance company, one of six collaborations funded by the Doris Duke Foundation for dances to premiere at the American Dance Festival and the Kennedy Center. This is your first dance commission, and you have been picked by the first company to perform its commission -- June 11 at ADF in Durham -- a company which you have loved for years: Pilobolus, the dance theater collective whose blend of comedy, athleticism, virtuosity, and imaginative gimmickry has produced dances that are often side-splitting and as often breathtaking.

At the first rehearsal, you behold the Herculean lifts and serpentine body-weaving in awe. One moment, Tamieca McCloud perches on the head of Mark Santillano. "Are you standing yet?" asks Santillano. "Yes, but I'm not pliéing yet." Later, Santillano and Gaspard Louis lift the lissome Rebecca Anderson, who balances one foot on each man's chest, the three creating a see-saw.

The movement intrigues you, and you start playing. You watch as your music inspires the performers to create new labyrinthine patterns. You elongate a phrase to match a movement, create a motif to match a dancer. A new world of compositional possibilities opens up to you.

Then comes the second rehearsal.

"You guys were doing something really cool last time," you begin. "You were going over each other's shoulders."

"The inverted retrograde slinky?" suggests Matt Kent, in the same tone as a ballet dancer might say, "The jeté?"

Co-director Jonathan Wolken, observing the rehearsal with colleagues Robby Barnett and Michael Tracy, intervenes. "90 percent of what we do in rehearsal is not going to end up in the piece."

Later, Barnett asks the others, "Did you like the little thing between Tamieca and Mark and Matt?"

"Not particularly," answers Wolken.

"I liked it," says Tracy.

You are Maria Schneider, and suddenly you realize that you are not working with one collaborator, but with a three-headed -- to use Pilobolus's own definition for its name -- fungus.

"Our kind of mass choreographic method is a cumbersome process," admits Barnett, who joined Pilobolus 27 years ago, shortly after it was founded by Wolken, Moses Pendleton, and Steve Johnson in Alison Chase's Dartmouth dance class. (They were later joined by Chase and Tracy. Pendleton has since departed to form Momix.) Their brain trust, augmented by the creative minds of the six dancers, is the oldest choreographic collective. "Anyone who works with us has to relive in miniature the same process we have gone through over 20 years, to discover how best to work with many minds," says Barnett.

Schneider adjusted. "You get the feeling they all want something different, (and) at a certain point I was letting all those things affect me," she says. "Then I realized that I have to hear what they say, put it in the back of my head and then go with my own instincts. "

She has discovered the fruits yielded by this alchemy. These ten minds are a choreographic Manhattan Project, the occasional fission a small price to pay for the creative fusion.

"They've had nice suggestions," Schneider reports. "I'll play an idea on the piano and they'll key into some aspect of it. When I see that inspire them, I'll develop it." The dancers, too, have moved her. "Because I know what can come from them, it inspires me to want to bring that into the music. I have this extra motivation, a visual context." Schneider has discovered that writing for dance is a natural outgrowth of her approach to writing music. "A lot of times when I'm writing, I'm thinking about affecting the bodies of people listening to the music."

Pilobolus, which often creates the dance first and then commissions a score to attach to it, has found Schneider the perfect composer to match its musicality. "We tend to wear our scores more like a cape than a glove," explains Barnett. "We drape the music across the movement, and we look to its emotional references more than we do to its rhythmic structures. Jazz, which is in many cases strongly defined by its rhythmic structures, has presented problems for us. Much of Maria's music is impressionistic, with veils of color that we work well with."

"My music is pastoral," says Schneider, "not your typical big band music. My influence is from jazz, classical, music from different cultures, flamenco. In one section of this piece I have a flamenco buleria."

This diversity appeals to the dancers. "Her ideas are wonderful," says McCloud, "as is her eagerness to understand how we work and to work with us without compromising her own integrity."


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