Dangling Men

Choreography by a Committee, a Pair, and a Genuine Original

Pilobolus, offering three premieres and repertory at the Joyce through July 20, appears becalmed. Founded by Dartmouth undergraduates in 1971, it had a good run of real glory as its sensual, dreamy fantasies unspooled across world stages. But the company (which has four artistic directors who've endured since the beginning, and a constantly shifting population of six dancers) now repeats itself, extruding pieces that still appealto a generation of unreconstructed frisbee players, but put anyone looking for formal rigor and clarity promptly to sleep.

The best of the new lot is Ben's Admonition by Alison Chase, the dance teacher of the original Piloboleans in their college days, working collaboratively with performers Ras Mikey C and Matt Kent. They begin suspended in midair, curled in a tight ball; when they uncoil, we see that they're hanging by their feet from handles attached to a cable. The key notion here—dance unbounded by the floor—Susan Marshall explored thoroughly in her 1987 Kiss; Chase uses two men instead of a mixed couple, but the aerodynamics are similar. Hanging by one arm, wearing boots and military trousers, their bare chests gleaming, the guys grope in each other's pockets, punch, kick; one knees the other in the groin—an engaging study of male camaraderie. By Pil standards the work is reasonably succinct; muscle fatigue may have dictated its length. By the end each has his own cord and dangles alone in dark, empty space.

Another premiere, The Brass Ring, also lists a single choreographer (Michael Tracy) working collaboratively with the current troupe (the other dancers are Otis Cook, Mark Fucik, Renée Jaworski, and Jennifer Macavinta) dressed in unitards elaborately painted with psychedelic renderings of human muscle and organ systems. We might be at a superheroes' convention or a carnival; the collage of recorded music, ranging from Aaron Copland to Scott Joplin, sounds like high-grade midway. The message seems to be that if you have the right friends you can fly, or at least leap tall people at a single bound. Men float the women about, passing them from hand to hand like packages. It's charming but ultimately weightless, evaporating from the mind as the curtain falls.

Carnival ride: members of Pilobolus in The Brass Ring
photo: Aimee Koch
Carnival ride: members of Pilobolus in The Brass Ring

In a new quartet, The Four Humours, by Robby Barnett and Jonathan Wolken collaborating with Fucik, Jaworski, Kent, and Macavinta, the men "play" the women as if they were balls in a game, take pratfalls, and dodge fake punches. Though the work purports to explore the same Elizabethan moods—sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, melancholic—that Balanchine indelibly plumbed in his Four Temperaments, it devolves in the direction of stunts and tumbling, concluding as a single eight-legged organism, circling blindly while the lights fade.

Pilobolus is also the subject of The Last Dance, a useful new film by Mirra Bank, opening at the Quad on Friday (see Film).


Jumay Chu and Byron Suber both teach at Cornell. After finals they brought their colleagues and 17 current and former students to the Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, where, on a floor structured by Suber's wooden boxes and corrugated walls, dancers young and younger performed the affecting vignettes of It's More What I Don't Say, alone, in pairs, and in larger groups; third-grader Emma Borden took a central role. Suber's special interest is architecture; his cast interacted with all manner of objects and shifting blocks of light.

After intermission the set lay heaped on the altar, leaving room on the floor for more complex group work. By the end they'd coalesced into what looked like a dance class, forming ranks and moving toward us doing big arm movements as a bank of lights at the rear gleamed. The pleasures of academe involve access to huge casts of performers; Chu and Suber made the most of this one.


Christopher Elam's Misnomer Dance Theater hit town last month with a force I haven't seen since the early days of Mark Morris. Elam, who resembles an undernourished yogi, has been studying in Bali and Turkey, and his dances drip with figures referencing Asian demons, even as they're accompanied by the likes of Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, Tom Waits, and Andy Teirstein. Fusion doesn't begin to describe what's going on here; Elam is annealing his influences, creating a taut, intense movement language quite remote from the "released" style so common downtown. In an evening of eight short works, a dozen dancers gave themselves permission to look weird and work hard; the results were stunning and grotesque.

Elam's three shows at Joyce Soho were completely sold-out. He'll have an extended run, with an additional new piece, at the Chashama Theater in late September.

 
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