The popular, brilliantly unconventional Pilobolus Dance Theatre had the honor last night of becoming the first dance troupe ever to perform in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater. The event was one of the notable innovations of the new Dance America series, under the joint auspices of the Kennedy Center and the Washington Performing Arts Society -- the Paul Taylor Dance Company will also appear at the Eisenhower later this week in the same series.
Pilobolus, a starling and provocative eyeful in whatever location, looked well enough in these surroundings to confirm what had been widely anticipated -- that the 1,100-seat Eisenhower, the most attractive and commodious of the Center's three major theaters, is a splendid place for dance. It can only accommodate small or medium-sized troupes not requiring an orchestra, but most dance companies, especially modern dance companies, fall into this category. The sight line aren't ideal (the orchestralevel ranking is too shallow for that) and reports on the resilience of the stage floor aren't in yet. Unquestionably, though, the theater passed this first trial with colors flying. The big inhibiting factors in its use will continue to be availability and cost.
Pilobolus is one of the grand success stories of '70s dance. Started as a collaborative experiment on a college campus almost a decade ago, it quickly established a highly original identity and amassed enough of a following to sell out for three weeks on Broadway by 1977. Its originators weren't dancers but athletes and acrobats, and the troupe's work still bears a strongly gymnastic imprint -- the body linkages, tumbling and pyramiding which give the company its spectacularly energetic side. The distinctively kinky theatrical elements came later, but have become no less characteristic.
Pilobolus calls itself a "dance theatre," but "dance circus" might be closer to the elusive mark of the troupe's essential nature. The virtuosity often resides in a kind of daredeviltry that suggests the trapeze or the high wire; physical "stunts" are part of the stock-in-trade. There's also a predilection for a comedy of the abnormal, and even freakishness -- of shape, of imagery, of emotional tenor.
All these elements surfaced in the five works of last night's program, ranging from the group's finding day to the present. "Ciona," with its alley-oop formations and human carousels, is almost purely gymnastic. "Geode," a Robby Barnett solo danced by Jamey Hampton, is more animistic, its twitchings and hand-walking suggesting a jungle creature. The early ('70) "Walklyndon," on the other hand, is a vaudeville number, a series of sight gags involving four colliding men.
The program ended with the troupe's signature piece, "Untitled," a surreal charade about women of giant height who hide the seamiest of impulses beneath decorous exteriors. The evening's newest work, the patchy "The Empty Suitor," is much in the same vein and uses all too similar ploys, but it contains an extremely funny balancing routine for Michael Tracy that's a natural hit with the audience.
Pilobolus has carved out a unique territory of its own, and there's no doubt of the troupe's extrasordinary prowess and imagination. One can still come away with lots of reservations -- the gymnastic works, for example, tend to meander aimlessly, and the theater pieces, besides being maddeningly vague, border on the exploitative. The Pilobolus repertoire is like a bunch of card tricks -- they're fun the first time, but they lose their kick easily after that.