Has it really been seven years since the Pilobolus Dance Theatre appeared in Washington? And 16 since the group's inception? Sitting in a packed Warner Theatre last week watching members of this amazingly elastic, uninhibited and good-humored group adhere to one another like so many suction cups, I couldn't help reflecting how much the world has changed since the early '70s, and how much this Connecticut-based ensemble has stayed the same.
For though all the veteran Pilobolites have stopped dancing -- five of them now codirect and cochoreograph for the team of younger dancers -- and company stalwart Martha Clarke has gone on to invent her own magical brand of movement theater, the group's spirit and style seem to be rooted in some kind of artistic never-never land. It's a land of pranks and pratfalls, communal living, erotic free-for-alls, earnest investigations of literature and psychology -- in short, a college experience circa 1971. The men are randy, the women willing, and everybody's out for a good time.
It's the way in which these frequently sophomoric attitudes are translated into movement that makes the group's work so endearing and at times so wondrous. The Pilobolus vocabulary blends gymnastics, modern dance, mime and stylized gesture into one seamless package, and its practitioners are so technically secure and natural that one momentarily forgets that they actually learned and rehearsed steps and phrases. (The current crop of dancers -- Jack Arnold, Carol Parker, Jim Blanc, Peter Pucci, Austin Hartel and Jude Woodcock Sante -- have received more conventional dance training than their directors, so the Pilobolus look is slightly more polished than previously.) They clamber onto one anothers' backs and chests, hang upside down like opossums, come together as if held by glue and hurl each other about like boomerangs. Much of the time these feats unfold in slow motion, so that the dancers appear to be moving underwater, or practicing an elegant form of visual illusion. The physical magic is further enhanced by the dramatic lighting designs of Neil Peter Jampolis and Allen Lee Hughes.
Of the three works presented on Thursday's program, it was the first and oldest dance, "Molly's Not Dead," that demonstrated the Pilobolus style most successfully. Commissioned nine years ago by the American Dance Festival, "Molly" follows the exploits of three hayseed brothers, who lope and bound about the stage while connected to each other like parts of a sandwich. They collectively sneeze and ogle a hip-swinging woman. Human tumbleweeds roll by, and two women and wheelbarrows are pushed laboriously along. It's all quite goofy and harmless, but the liquid, ever-metamorphosing shapes make one gasp.
You'd think that a company headed by five artistic directors would be particularly adept at editing and streamlining their work. Judging by the two remaining dances on the program, five pairs of eyes aren't necessarily better than one. Last year's "Land's Edge," a dreamlike evocation of a small fishing town and its residents' interactions with the mysterious, seemingly dead woman who literally glides onto their shore, certainly had its affecting moments -- a languorous duet for this woman and the town outcast, the closing image of yet another prone female whooshing onto the stage -- but the pacing was snail-like and the characters not terribly original.
"Day Two," created in 1980, is an overlong, alternately absorbing and trashy tribal rite set to the pulsing music of Brian Eno, David Byrne and the Talking Heads. Clad only in flesh-colored bikini bottoms, the six men and women spring about like pogo sticks, couple inventively, assume the postures of monkeys and birds and poke their way out of a huge gray tarp. The piece ends with each dancer sliding gleefully across the stage by means of a spray of water and his or her strong muscles. That final image sums up Pilobolus' free-spirited ethos perfectly, and sets the audience cheering lustily.