No Church Picnic


Most of us tap modestly into our body’s resources. We slide from upright to seated to prone, lug stuff, balance on one leg to get the other into pants, work out a bit, maybe try adventurous sex positions. One key to Pilobolus’s success is the way its cadre of choreographers transform basic movement principles into acrobatic architecture—showing us what we instinctively understand in surreal, beautiful, comic, and/or terrifying ways. Ballet refines human movement; Pilobolus (at the Joyce through July 22) runs with the beasts. Partners crouch on each other’s arched-back chests, coil into three-dimensional mandalas, swing through the air like gibbons, and get stuck on one another in curious, often cheerfully raunchy ways.

The predominant dynamic is smooth, slow, and pressured, the better to achieve and consolidate novel designs. It’s not surprising that some of the popular troupe’s best dances—those in which maneuvers transcend tricks—suggest dreams, fables, or rituals. In the new Tsu-Ku-Tsu by Alison Chase (one of the company’s four artistic directors), Otis Cook stands, with Gaspard Louis sitting on his head. We note the strength and balance entailed, but absorb the pose primarily as a totemic prelude to slow struggle—black skin and white skin melding in designs as clear as a yin-yang symbol.

Eroticism—primal, decorative, or coarse—fires many pieces. A premiere, Tantra Aranea, by Robby Barnett and Jonathan Wolken in collaboration with the mesmerizing performers Josie Coyoc and Matt Kent, is an intense mating ritual. Initially, Coyoc in her red gown looks like a Spanish princess, with Kent, tumbling about in flying rags, her slave. But their tender, inquisitive gestures lead them to disrobe with tantalizing slowness and, to an array of Middle Eastern melodies, indulge in a liquid display of tantric sex. The title, with its spidery insinuations, counts; in this latest take on sex as a killing field, the lights go out while Kent is still quivering from Coyoc’s bite. Death and orgasm—together again.

Tsu-Ku-Tsu thrives on the music and performance of famed taiko drummer Leonard Eto. His back glistening, he thunders on the giant drum, walks among the dancers with a smaller drum strapped on, or chimes finger cymbals. In the stunning opening, Rebecca Anderson, Coyoc, and Benjamin Pring stand, kimonoed, on the crouched backs of Cook, Kent, and Louis. When these underlings rise to walk, the three atop them stand, hands stiffly arranged, like royal children. Chase doesn’t follow this image through, but constructs other handsome ones: The superb Pring arches and dives like a dolphin. As always, gender roles are marked—Anderson, clambering ingeniously around Kent, gets stuck and has to be pried off, although at one point, Coyoc treats men and women alike as furniture.

Pilobolus: a summer drink with a little kick and a hint of debauchery.

Douglas Dunn bills his The Common Good as a “dance made with advice from others,” most of which was resolutely nonspecific. But cause and effect work in mysterious ways, and the dance turned out rich and strange. Stories gleam deep down like pebbles obscured by ripples. Sleep is a major theme. Grazia Della-Terza slumbers on a red rug while Dunn dances, and later, Kate Cross, Monica Olsson, Beth Simons, and Waka Watanabe get tired, topple over, and lie twitching like dreaming cats.

Dunn’s opening solo is wonderful—thoughtful, open to the light, his arms watery. A dance. When he gets wild, Carol Mullins makes the lights scream red, and the four women pull him down and deck him in a robe of ropes. Della-Terza wakes to John McCormack singing on a scratchy record. Three women suggest the Graces, but that legendary trio didn’t have feet as quick and pointy as these do. Small adventures flourish. Dunn and Della-Terza pull scraps of colored cloth out of slits in each other’s clothing. They mime jerkily to corny songs—”All I wanted was love to stay . . . “—their facial expressions askew, as if snapped in mid-action. The piece exudes amiable non sequiturs, yet Dunn and Della-Terza seem to be on a romantic adventure, their trysts and his wanderings accompanied by four solicitous and flirtatious handmaidens.

Out of it comes a happy ending. I think. Scarlatti and Handel yield to the Buena Vista Social Club. Everyone dances together, busily changing partners. Dunn and Della-Terza wear new outfits and look bemused, like a pair that’s been suddenly transported back to honeymoon days, but without becoming young and frisky again.

The Common Good has more bright ideas than many five dances put together.

I like to envision Harold Nicholas dancing up that stairway to heaven, laying down firm, intricate clusters of taps on every step. His legs fly out, his hands kind of pat the air. He twists back to look at us, wave, and give us the cheeky, delighted smile that charmed audiences in theaters and movie houses from the 1930s on. We get some flashy acrobatics along with the classic tap rhythms. The man who jumped over his brother Fayard down that white staircase in Stormy Weather, one of them dropping into a split at each escalating musical blast, is doing those splits upward, as he travels from this world.