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Flash Feature, 8-2: Return to Innocence
Pilobolus -- But seriously, folks

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2007 Paul Ben-Itzak

(This article was written in 1997, and is published today for the first time. To read about recent developments with Pilobolus, including its firing of Alison Chase, click here.)

WASHINGTON, Connecticut -- A donut made of four entwined men in black biker shorts rolls across the stage, indicating that the new ballet being rehearsed by Pilobolus Dance Theatre in a rural Connecticut meeting hall could be about male bonding. Suddenly, three of the men circle the fourth and bang him viciously on the head, causing his noggin to reverberate violently for a minute. He tries to escape, only to have the other men turn him upside down and pummel him into the ground. Welcome to the darker side of the dance company Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times has called "these canny cut-ups of modern dance."

Critics have also used words like "prankish," "frisky," and "witty" to describe the work of Pilobolus, on view through July 18 in three mixed programs at the Joyce Theater. If the company is unparalleled in its inventive sight gags and imaginative lifting, however, the 26-year life of the ensemble now headed by Robby Barnett, Alison Chase, Michael Tracy and Jonathan Wolken has been leavened with work of considerable gravity.

The 1995 duets "Pyramid of the Moon" and "Masters of Ceremony" -- the latter starring Wolken and Barnett as a master and slave tethered together by a rope -- both deal with shifting power relationships between two men. ("Eerie and troubling" is how Dunning described "Pyramid.") The 1986 "Land's Edge," created for Hartford Ballet, features necrophilia prominently, as a pair of twins try to make love to an apparently lifeless body. "Duet," made in 1992 and set to Jan Garbarek's haunting arrangement of medieval Norwegian songs, focuses on two women who might be lovers, sisters, friends, or mother and daughter. In "Untitled," an audience favorite in which two women in long dresses (originally Chase and Martha Clarke), cavort (the dresses hiding the men on whose shoulders they stand), one of the women appears bent on devouring the other.

"We have quite a tradition of dark stuff," said Chase, the putative mother of Pilobolus, which was started in 1971 by four undergraduates who met in her Dartmouth dance class. "We do have a dark side, and it's not just recent." In fact, she said, "We had to take our heavy pieces out of the repertory. We did this piece called 'The Return to Maria LaBaja,' based on a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novella, which depicted rape."

"Untitled" and "Duet" are featured at the Joyce. The season also includes the New York premieres of "Gnomen," the dance which starts with the four men rolling on stage; a solo by Chase for Tamieca McCloud to an original score by David Mills; and "Olympic Dances," a work by Chase and Tracy which loosely draws on Greek mythology and which is concerned with the transfer of power from mother to daughter.

"It's also about the transfer of power from one generation of dancers to another," explained Chase. The mother figure is played by Rebecca Jung, the company's senior dancer and its dance captain -- for Pilobolus, the equivalent of a road manager -- who is leaving the troupe after seven years. (Three of the six dancers performing this season were not with the company a year ago.) "Rebecca is the last of a generation of dancers that we had for seven to eight years," said Chase. "I think it's been a huge task and responsibility being the only one from that generation left to transfer the thousand and one details that go into our various styles of partnering. We had three new men this year -- it was overwhelming."

The three new men, Matt Kent, Gaspard Louis, and Trebien Pollard, along with veteran Mark Santillano, make up the cast of "Gnomen." That piece is inspired by both the newcomers' arrival and the departure of two members of the Pilobolus family who died last year: longtime dancer Jim Blanc and the novelist Brian Berkey, a close friend of Barnett's. The dance, to a commissioned score by Paul Sullivan, was paid for in part by contributions made to Pilobolus in memory of Blanc.

In the piece, each man is initiated by the other three, being lifted, scooped up, turned, tossed, caught, and otherwise maneuvered. The dance, to a commissioned score by Paul Sullivan, was paid for in part by contributions made to Pilobolus in memory of Blanc.

The dance has each man being initiated by the other three, being lifted, scooped up, turned, tossed, caught, and otherwise maneuvered. The work is also an initiation for the three new performers, said Barnett, who choreographed it with Wolken. "We ask a lot of our dancers -- that they bring a lot of themselves and invest themselves in the work. Our sort of free-form process is not always immediately familiar to people, but it is essentially a comfortable one and everyone becomes invested quite deeply in the process over time."

The collaborative nature of that process -- dancers are given credit as collaborators -- was evident at the recent rehearsal of "Gnomen." In a movement suggested by Santillano, Kent bent one leg over his head, hunched his back, and walked across the floor supported by an arm and a leg, stopping only when his colleagues bopped him on the head again. Later in the dance, the three men lifted Santillano and swung him in a circle, then held him horizontally with his head tilted toward the floor.

At this point, all the dancers were slippery with perspiration, causing Barnett to observe to Wolken, "I feel more comfortable rehearsing this over a mat."

"Well, we're not going to have a mat," answered Wolken.

"Well," insisted Barnett, "maybe we should because I don't want him (Santillano) splitting his head open."

Two hours later, the men started another run-through of the piece when Barnett again turned to Wolken. "You know what?" he said. "I think they're toast. We should just call it a day." Then, turning to his sweating, panting dancers, he proclaimed, "Guys, you're toast."

Santillano, asked later to describe the serious side of Pilobolus, answered, the sweat still cascading in rivulets down his naked chest, "The serious side of Pilobolus is that if you don't take the work seriously, it's very dangerous. The grips and the lifts and the danger factor are a very serious thing."

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