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Pilobolus Growing


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at the Auditorium Theatre

March 18-20

In 1971 four men, Dartmouth classmates who had all taken dance workshops with Alison Chase, found they had in common a dry wit and a fascination with the sculptural possibilities of the human anatomy. The group they formed then--Pilobolus, also the name of a fungus--often performed in silence, periodically in the nude. They earned a reputation for shocking choreography and cunning stagecraft, giving birth to startling forms out of masses of arms, legs, and torsos--which never looked like arms, legs, or torsos. They were something of a freak show, yet escaped ridicule by virtue of their ingenuity, their sheer cleverness.

Recently at the Auditorium Theatre, Pilobolus--which now numbers six (new) dancers, including two women--showed how far their ingenuity has taken them in 17 years. The group burst onstage with a medley of Elvis Presley favorites; presented a disturbing portrait of violence and rape; and finally slipped neatly out of narrative with a minimalist, primitive exhibit of bare flesh and muscle.

The newest piece on the program, and a Chicago premiere, was I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone (1987). This was a lark, a merry mess of bumbling courtship, shot through with sexual tension and slapstick humor.

The piece begins with a honey-voiced narrator doing a convincing Elvis impression. He announces: "Love makes the world go round--but just 'cause it's simple, don't mean it's easy." For-real Elvis rock 'n' roll tumbles forth, as four men (Jack Arnold, Jim Blanc, Austin Hartel, and Peter Pucci) hurl themselves onstage, dressed in loud velveteen jackets and black trousers. The two women (Carol Parker and Jude Woodcock Sante) prance on in 50s-style wide skirts and high-top sneakers. They are lifted and tossed by the men, petticoats fluttering.

The movement is easy and weighty, as the dancers swing each other around, run, roll, and recover with grace. Pratfalls and gaffes punctuate the flurry, as the men, first peeking under skirts, advance to sticking their hands between the women's legs; a woman pulls a string of pink bubble gum from her mouth and lets it go with a snap. When one man brings a volleyball onstage and the men become absorbed in sport, the women vie for their attention. One steals the ball and slips it under her shirt--the men flock around her single, mountainous boob in open-mouthed lust. They quickly disperse, however, when the ball rolls down to the dancer's belly and she begins to move with a pregnant waddle.

The group unites amicably for a giddy waltz to "Blue Moon"; and the two male-female couples and one all-male pair spin rings around each other and slowly whirl offstage.

What was most pleasing about I'm Left was the slippery ease of movement paired with Presley's silken voice. Unlike Twyla Tharp, who used recent (that is, thin and stiff) Frank Sinatra recordings in her Nine Sinatra Songs, with disastrous results, Pilobolus used youthful, athletic Presley recordings: "Tutti Frutti," "All Shook Up," and others. The music was a perfect match with the dancers' lean force.

The second work, Return to Maria La Baja (1984), showed another face--one of dark drama. Paul Sullivan's sound track was a collage of drumbeats, opera strains, sobs, shattered glass, and other assaults on the ear. The music spoke the emotions of the dancers, whose faces appeared frozen behind expressionless plastic masks, but whose bodies told a story of violence and manipulation. This work was not so much dance as mime. The parts played included an obese, despotic man in heavy brocaded robes; the girl he violates and sells; the men who rape her; and the one who finally frees her. The girl ends up alone, awkwardly tracing her own, new dance.

Countering this narrative piece with a bare-bones physical work, Pilobolus wound up with Day Two (1980). The dancers wore nothing but the tiniest of flesh-colored bikini bottoms, and the movement was slow, often small, and sensual. This examination of the human physique was enhanced by Neil Peter Jampolis's expert lighting, which shaded muscles, curves, and angles. Odd, awesome shapes were molded out of buttocks and limbs. In one section, two long poles were brought onstage, then each was supported at an angle by two dancers, and new shapes were achieved as other dancers clung to the poles or perched on top of them. One was inclined to gasp at each configuration, at each piling of body upon body to create some fantastic new animal. What started as a group routine to Talking Heads music, in which the dancers moved as a unit, all one shape, dissolved into small formations--three couples--set against Brian Eno minimalism. As Eno split and explored chords and tones, each dancer's work became more distinct from the others', more introspective.

At the end, a rippling, filmy sheet was floated horizontally across the stage, and the dancers crept beneath it to form pulsating mounds. Finally they burst forth together, tearing through the membrane like tadpoles from an egg.

The dancers had taken no bows after the first two pieces, but now when the curtain fell, it rose again. The plastic sheet had been sprayed with water, and one by one the dancers slid across it, dripping wet and bare, gliding from one end of the stage to the other on knees, sides, or feet, waving cheerily to the audience.

I was surprised to see that, for the concert I attended, every work had at least four choreographers. The program notes named ten choreographers for I'm Left--all six dancers, plus four of Pilobolus's five artistic directors. But it seems fitting that Pilobolus's mark is the group effort, just as their weird onstage inventions are formed of many arms, legs, and behinds. Pilobolus has taken what it needs from others--a funny bone from the irreverent Dutch creator Jiri Kylian, a bolt of athletic force from Judith Jamison, a moody streak from German expressionist Pina Bausch--and larded it with its own inimitable quirkiness and genius; the result is quite nearly a perfect pie every time.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lois Greenfield.

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