Dance Review: Modern Troupe Pilobolus at Kennedy Center

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 5, 2009

The snotterati love to pooh-pooh Pilobolus, the troupe of acrobatic dancers known for their intricate human pile-ups that play with illusion and reality, producing elephants or sea creatures from bodies stuck together like globs of clay. The sniffing started when Pilobolus found a way to monetize its art (in TV ads, at the Oscars and the Olympics) in a way few others in the marginalized world of modern dance have.

Lately, the nearly 40-year-old group has gained far less attention for live performances such as its exhilarating show Saturday at the Kennedy Center. What was new here were the collaborations: a shadow-play piece created with puppeteer Basil Twist that sparked true wonder from the most elemental aspects of dance -- the body, the imagination and good lighting -- and a dreamscape created with Israeli artists Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak involving lots of chairs and a deeply moving misfits love story.

But dance purists are more likely to decry Pilobolus for its commercials (horrors!) for cars and the National Football League. Among those who feel that existing on the cultural fringes conveys a certain kind of quasi-moral merit, or is, at the very least, chic, nothing spells sellout clearer than an aesthetic that's been blessed by Madison Avenue.

Pilobolus, founded by a group of jocks and hippies who hooked up in a Dartmouth dance class in 1971, has become a brand. Its visually grabbing mode of shape-shifting has widespread appeal and can even sell things, along the lines of the performance-art trio Blue Man Group, which zoomed from the niches to stints on "The Tonight Show" and Intel ads. Celebrities are praised for smart business practices that lead to marketing and merchandising opportunities, but for some reason we're suspicious when an arts organization exhibits the same skill.

It is fair to examine, however, how branding affects the art. Has success caused Pilobolus to lose focus?

Not on the evidence presented at the Eisenhower Theater. While Pilobolus's past touring shows have been heavy on the unsubtle crowd-pleasing antics and sophomoric physical humor (booger jokes, wedgies), those who have written the company off as a flashy fragment of its formerly experimental self must now be the ones tied up in knots. This was the most intriguing Pilobolus program in years, and it contained two works that surprised in ways you don't often see on the brainier end of the dance spectrum.

What made those pieces, "Darkness and Light" and "Rushes," work was smart teamwork. Twist is the most prominent of New York's art puppeteers and has worked with numerous dance groups as puppets have become an ever-more-popular dance prop. It's a good fit: Pilobolus has always incorporated a puppeteer's sense of play, and its most recognizable creative strategy -- making huge, fantastical silhouettes out of entwined bodies lit against a screen -- is itself a form of shadow puppetry.

This was the technique used in "Darkness and Light," one of the troupe's newer works. First, we see the reality: The curtain rises on seven dancers in a frozen tableau, crouching together holding an array of bright lights. Then, the illusion: A white screen lowers, hiding the dancers from us. Against this new backdrop, we see projections of shadowy fetal shapes, butterflies, jellyfish, protean bubbles with orifices that wink as they float by. We know the dancers are making these images, but a willful not-knowing takes over. It feels like pure magic.

Then the screen lifts, and we again see the dancers. But the sense of fantasy continues, as they gather around one man, Jun Kuribayashi, shining their lights up on him so his shadow looms, godlike, behind them -- transformed in size, in status and in our perception. It's a tribute to the artist as conjurer. By extension, it seems to me, it's also a look at how reverence in general is made up of part reality and part illusion.

"Rushes" (2007) was dancier, combining Pilobolus's standard athleticism with the loose, snapping, rag-doll style of movement typical of Pinto and Pollak's work. There was a screwy logic to this piece, which united a beer-hall polka with sounds of rushing water and the slithery trumpeting of Miles Davis. There was a stumbling grace -- dancers bumping into one another, fidgeting on their chairs. At one point they grab a bunch of chairs and swirl them around, two by two, in an improbably fluid reel. At the end, one man, who has become the outcast, cradles a woman who has been tripping all over herself and carries her as if he's proudest nerd in the world. He's walking on the chairs, which the others align under his feet as if they're carrying out a frantic bucket brigade, passing ones from the end forward, etc. Here was another idealistic view, of the dance company as a hive, as a utopia, servicing the least among them.

This program added a new dimension to Pilobolus's origins as a collective, with shared leadership. Most dance groups form to promote the vision of one artist, but with its unique structure Pilobolus went on to carve out a new niche in modern dance, going places only those entirely liberated from technique, standard practice and fealty to the super-serious could go. Pilobolus cornered the market on the weird optical illusion, the bulging clumps of bodies that moved like silk and morphed into amazing shapes that were monuments to experimentation, problem-solving and possibly the odd hallucinogenic.

To me, Pilobolus embodied a large part of what the best in contemporary dance is all about: discovery. Making something new with the same standard body parts the rest of us have.

Pilobolus perfected the element of surprise, and this is what I've always loved about them, because the first thing I'm looking for in a dance performance is the unpredictable. I don't want to see the next move coming. Novelty is far from enough, though; there needs to be a concept, a structure, visual markers that tell us the choreographer has something interesting to say, that he or she is going to offer some intensification of human experience, or a beneath-the-surface exploration of some musical, spiritual or emotional dimension. Serious art offers more than tricks -- it offers ideas. These were in abundant supply at the Eisenhower.

Hopefully, the group will stick to fruitful partnerships and continue to make provocative work as well as clever TV spots. But it's not the democratization and widespread appeal of a group -- or its ability to make money -- that determines its artistic merit. It's the art, and on this program, Pilobolus didn't have a problem with that.

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