Pilobolus Dance Theatre most successfully engages its audiences with aha moments and ha-ha moments. Founded 31 years ago by four Dartmouth College men who had happened into a modern-dance class, the company discovered its knack early on and hasn't much deviated from those collaborative choreographic principles. Of the 80 or so works this Vermont-based dance collective has produced, most contain a moment of serendipitous discovery as well as a laugh-out-loud one.
Tuesday evening's program at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, which continues through Saturday, spanned three decades and included one of the troupe's earliest works, "Walklyndon," from 1971. Cartoonishly antic and brash, it demonstrates the zany side of Pilobolus. The company's six dancers, in sleek yellow unitards and satin jogging shorts that scream 1970s, tiptoe, skitter, run, flail, jog and stroll across the stage, bumping into each other in various expertly timed encounters.
The evening's newest work, Alison Chase's "Ben's Admonition," a duet crafted in collaboration with dancers Ras Mikey C and Matt Kent (Marck Fucik performed for Kent), strives for the aha. The opening image unsettles: The pair, clad in boots and Army pants, hang limply from a cable. Dangling by one or both arms just inches above the floor, the men spar and swing in slow motion to Paul Sullivan's score. In Stephen Strawbridge's murky pooled light, their bodies untangle and soar, yet "Ben's Admonition" isn't about flight, it's about entrapment, about being held to a tether with little hope of escape. While the title refers to Benjamin Franklin's admonition at the signing of the Declaration of Independence to "hang together" or "assuredly we shall all hang separately," the work's military garb and stark bleakness imbue it with uneasy hints of contemporary conflict.
Chase's ritual-infused "Tsu-Ku-Tsu," with its richly melodic taiko drum score by Leonard Eto, evokes yin and yang through its imagistic pairs of dancers who form totemic sculptures and rolling clumps and then, egged on by Eto's crescendos of drums and bells, fling their bodies in free-falling, heart-pounding solos.
Intended as a body-mind union for dancers Otis Cook and Renee Jaworski, Michael Tracy's "Symbiosis," with its gymnastic undulations and sculptural curves, remains surprisingly asexual and sterile. The Alice in Wonderland world of "Untitled," from the classic Pilobolus backlist (1975), lets two women grow and shrink on the shoulders of a pair of men. Oddly picturesque and off-kilter, this encounter leaves room enough for inventing one's own flights of fancy in tandem with Pilobolus's configurations.
This generation of Pilobolans -- neither the founders nor the early dancers still perform -- is astonishingly fit; their chiseled bodies can contort and balance, spring and melt, flex and bend with an exquisite ease and sinewy grace inconceivable for the rest of us mere mortals.