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Flash Review, 6-29: Outsider Art
Odd Man in at Pilobolus

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

The weird, impossible-looking twists that Pilobolus dancers contort their bodies through aren't the only thing in a Pilobolus concert that can make one squirm. If the Pilobolus Dance Theatre canon can be divided into the serious and the comic, there's a subset to the serious which might be called "outsider art," and even that, the way I'm using the term anyway, has two meanings. First, it refers to the literal theme of somber works like "Land's Edge," "Particle Zoo" and "Gnomen." But it also refers to what happens to this lean, mean, tricky dance-producing machine when a new dancer or other collaborator is introduced into the mix. Program B of the annual Pilobolus New York season, which opened last night at the Joyce, made me think of both aspects of this category.

The most stunning, haunting example of the outsider story in the Pilobolus rep., at least that I've seen, is "Land's Edge." A dead or at least somnambulant woman in flowing ivory dress washes up on the shore of a land inhabited by -- it's been a while, folks, so I may get some of these characters wrong -- a pair of narcoleptic semi-Siamese twins, a mentally retarded man, and a sort of father-mother pair. (I may be wrong about that last.) Here the stranger -- Rebecca Jung in the production I saw -- is as much a device for revealing the twisted mannerisms and relationships of this society, as she is part of the central romantic pas de deux, between her and the retarded man (in a heart-rending performance by Kent Lindemer, when I caught it). In the less somber "Aeros," an astronaut lands on a planet of bunchkins (they move with their waists bent, heads at their toes, and hands grasping their ankles as they see the world upside down through their legs; kids, don't try this at home!) and other characters, including a queen who at some point falls for the astronaut, and vice versa, before he skyrockets uncontrollably back into the stratosphere. Notwithstanding this magical romance, the outsider here is mostly a device to produce comic physical feats. (Most of which work!)

As for the 1997 "Gnomen," well, this is a piece that makes grown men cry. This men's quartet seems to be about different things to different people -- that's one of the great things about dance, the lack of a written script allows for multiple interpretations -- but to me it's about men passing over, or passing through. In this case, each of the men is an outsider, and one by one the other three initiate him, through actions as gentle as three rocking the fourth while he lays horizontally on their feet, to as harsh as drilling a comrade into the ground, head first. In this case, Paul Sullivan's music is an equal collaborator. Coming in (I believe) after the choreography, Sullivan caught the spirit, in whole and in the minutiae, exactly, and is equally responsible for triggering at least my tearful reaction.

In its mood, "Particle Zoo" -- the only one of the dances I've mentioned which is actually on the program seen last night, "Gnomen" appearing on Program A -- is somewhere in the middle of the lighter "Aeros" and the other two. It is unambiguously about an outsider, in this case Benjamin Pring, who enters the stage after Otis Cook, Matt Kent, and Gaspard Louis and, noticing that they're all looking skyward and are shirtless, ditches his t-shirt and looks up too. There are brutal sections, as when two of the men hold hands, form a net, and invite Pring to jump into it -- only to pull their hands away at the last minute so that he drops face down on the floor. But there are also virtuoso sections in which Pring seems to be allowed admission to the circle: most strikingly, the sections where they do a sort of sped up, sideways, body-length leapfrogging, their individual and group facility hiding the fact that this is undoubtedly a dance in which, if any one member's timing is a second off, someone could get seriously hurt.

As seen last night, Pring, while getting better, seems to not quite have a multi-dimensional dramatic handle on his part yet; in the sections where he is admitted to the group, he seems to suddenly forget his outsider status (whereas, say, with predecessor Mark Santillano, the self-doubt was always lurking). He is getting there, tho; last year's stock silly grin has disappeared in favor of a curious expression. (Oh, and I should add: He's a beautiful dancer, probably the purest "dancer" of the current male crop!) The Pilobolus directors say that their works are not actually finished when they premiere (I'm paraphrasing); rather, they come into their own over a period of time. I sense that the same applies to the dancers' making the roles their own. For safety and aesthetic reasons, getting the timing of what is essentially still not only new choreography to them but unconventional phrasing is the first priority. It takes having this movement become second nature for a dancer to be able to fully attack the substance of a role.

In this vein, and regarding fellow recent (1998) recruit Josie Coyoc, what a difference a year makes! Coyoc certainly got the job done in the signature, elemental "Day 2" (directed by Moses Pendleton and created by a score of Pilobolus/Momix/Iso/Peter Pucci legends before they were legends) last year. This year, however, she changed the dance! I mean that in the good sense, in that her creature-like interpretation seemed to bring this dance playground back to its roots as an act of nature, and call forth the primordial, pre-human characters it was probably meant to describe. Coyoc has always been a dynamo of a tyro (a more beautiful cousin of the Tasmanian Devil, say), since at least her days with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company. What's new is that with Pilobolus, she has a chance to exercise that part of her dance personality more, and the Pil directors seem open to it. (This is not always the case. In my opinion, both Tamieca McCloud and Trebien Pollard, who left the touring company in 1998, were greatly under-utilized, their innate skills and training not fully explored. Where Pilobolus ceases to be organic and goes into stasis, sometimes, is in its resistance to being changed, to really -- if I may employ a biologic term! -- evolving.) There were actually choreographic moments here which Coyoc interpreted so freshly, I (I who have seen "Day 2" so many times you'd think I'd have its moves engraved in my mind like archeological hieroglyphics) could have sworn that they were new. There's a sharp moment where the four men are arrayed in a half-circle and Coyoc swiftly, purposefully jabs each one in the stomach. And in general, she performs everything more hyper-kinetically (I'm not saying better, just differently) than her immediate predecessors, McCloud and Jung.

Watching Coyoc, I somehow thought of the Charlie Chaplin movie "Modern Times," in that she moved with that same type of relentless, precise machinistic drive. Not in a soul-less way, you understand, but rather with the mechanism of an organism whose responses are not calculated, driven by the brain, but a protozoa that responds and automatically reacts in a given way to all the stimuli around it. What makes it delicious to see this dance now is that, opposite Coyoc and completing the female corps, we have six-year veteran Rebecca Anderson, who herself, in this dance anyway, gives an interpretation not just reflecting her own more measured and lyrically-focused dancing, but the residue of Jung's drolly sensuous, frank, and unabashedly sexually direct interpretation.

But what was a nice memento in "Day 2" -- i.e., getting to see the enchanted Anderson one last time in this dance, before she leaves the touring main company this fall -- turns out to be something of a crutch in Michael Tracy's "Sweet Dreams," which received its New York premiere last night. This quartet relies too much on the wonder projected and provoked by Anderson -- as she's lifted, supported and encased by the three men -- which cannot sustain a whole dance without choreographic, thematic innovation. Yes, there are some new additions to the particular and peculiar Pilobolus vocabulary, but even they feel heavy-handed; I can almost see the director and dancers in the studio trying to come up with interesting new "how did they do that?" configurations. There's nothing wrong with that in itself; the bedrock of this company is in many ways its ability to invent vocabulary specific to the dance at hand. But unlike, say, the Maurice Sendak-Arthur Yorinks Holocaust-themed collaboration, "A Selection," which can be seen on Program A, "Sweet Dreams" does not have a gripping narrative thread to sustain the intricate bodily connections, beyond the obvious and trite one indicated by the title. (Although I should probably add here that my dancer-dance photographer companion, enjoying his virgin Pilobolus experience, thought it was wonderful and also marveled that Anderson seemed never to touch the ground.)

Another small note here: Kent, so wonderfully ambiguous in his expressions and characterization in "A Selection," here reverts to an over-used sort of awed facial expression for most of his reactions to the tricks and twists of the other three. This expression is charming the first time around, but I think it's time for him to diversify. (I hope this suggestion doesn't sound snide: I offer it as well-meaning, take-it-or-leave-it constructive criticism from a devoted Kent fan! Of the current crop, Kent, with Cook and Coyoc coming up close behind, is definitely the actor of the group, using that term as a compliment!)

This program also offers a chance to catch Anderson one more time in "Pseudopedia," a dance originally made for a man by Jonathan Wolken in 1974 (and set to hippy tribal drumming by Wolken and Pilobolus co-founder/Momix founder Pendleton), but which Anderson has made her own. She floats, she tumbles gracefully, she catches the light on her bright red suit, she catches her toe with her hand and taps her chin with it. This is one virtuoso dancer, one who has elevated the very art of Pilobolus, and she will be missed -- by us in the audience and, I believe, by the directors.

Now then, indulge me for two more paragraphs for a personal note. Years ago, I had a protege, Mesha. At 11, after years of making plays on her own, she acted in a formal performance with a theater conservatory. Afterwards, I took her aside and said: "Your mom and your friends are always going to say you were great. I'm going to tell you the truth, at least as I see it, because I think ultimately that will help you become a better artist."

I don't presume to have the same relationship to Pilobolus; in some ways, in terms of how they and Moses have altered the way I look at dance, I consider myself the prodigy! But I do criticize them in the same constructive spirit. That is to say, while for others it might be enough that this company is still "those wacky Pils, aren't just they hilarious?!," or, on the other hand, to dismiss the company because "it's not dance," I regard it seriously. Indeed, I regard Pilobolus (with Momix) not just as a company, but a third stream of dance, after ballet and modern. Rightly or wrongly, I have a proprietary sense towards the company and this dance Movement. I am as harsh on the company as I would be on my own son, and for the same reasons, namely love, high expectations, and only wishing the best for the son.

A program note: The schedule I have says Program C, bowing next Wednesday, includes the new duet "Tantra," "Uno Dos Tray," "Apoplexy," and "Aeros"; however, a dancer told me last night that not "Aeros," but the not-recently seen "Debut C" ("Debussy"?), the last piece Moses Pendleton helped create while still with the company, will round out the program. Pilobolus continues at the Joyce, with three programs, through July 22. Pilobolus Too!, the misleadingly named company of Momix/Pilobolus veterans Rebecca Stenn and Adam Battlestein which performs many of the luscious duets created by Pendleton and Alison Chase, as well as other works, performs matinees July 12 and 19. For more info, visit the Joyce web site.

For more on Pilobolus -- aw, heck, we've written so much about them, best to type "Pilobolus" into the search engine and see what you find!

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