Since its founding 36 years ago by four Dartmouth jocks bitten by the dance bug, Pilobolus has brought out the schizophrenia lurking in critics. In the early days, the attitude tended to be, “It’s not dance, of course, but I love it”; more recently, reviewers braid any negative responses they have into remarks about cheering crowds and the nature of popular art.
Well, yes. There’s no denying the charm of the current Pilobolites and a repertory that shows their ability to unite in fantastic human sculptures, sprout extra limbs, dive through the air, and in innumerable ways contradict what we assume our bodies are capable of. Their best dances traffic in poetic transformations—beautiful, or bizarre, or witty. The least satisfying ones settle for trite ideas or look as if the choreographic process (usually involving one or more of the company’s three artistic directors plus the dancers) boiled down to a “What if I did a headstand on her knee?” approach, without much deep thought about structure.
The first of three programs assembled by directors Robby Barnett, Michael Tracy, and Jonathan Wolken—ex-Pilobolites all—offers works that move away from the dreamy ambience and cool performing style of the earlier repertory. Wolken’s new B’zyrk presents the dancers as troupers in an inept but eager-to-please circus. Clad in wonderfully ramshackle costumes by Liz Prince, they begin their acts to terrific recorded music by Leningrad—blaring brasses and possibly drunken Slavic voices—that accompanies their cheerful infighting and wacky efforts to be spectacular (it’s hard to pull off the notion of experts as blunderers and still show spectators the skills they’ve come to applaud). Some events work better than others. All the fussing and refusing that lead up to a stunt involving Andrew Herro and Renée Jaworski prove well worth it when Herro launches himself, clears Jaworski (finally cajoled into standing erect) by several inches, and dives into a somersault. Tall Jenny Mendez’s nervous mega-quaking doesn’t quite so fluently resolve into her “trick”: She walks on her hands, while two men hold her legs apart. B’zyrk moves swiftly and hectically, and the dancers play it to the hilt.
The other New York premiere, Persistence of Memory, by Michael Tracy and the dancers, mines a familiar Pilobolus vein: the slow, smooth duet in which a man and woman perform remarkable stunts in the name of love. Annika Sheaff approaches Mannelich Minniefee and lies down to receive his revivifying kiss. At the end, she’s supine again, and he’s running backward, as if rewinding himself from his recollected passion. Stephen Strawbridge frames them in pools of light. The eclectic musical selections by Calexico and Gustavo Santaolalla career between a high blurriness that calls to mind a glass harmonica or a distant music box, jazzy brass and drums, and vapidly eerie noodling.
The performances by dark, muscular Minniefee, with his flying dreads, and slender, red-haired Sheaff make the duet sing. They handle each other gently, absorbed in remembered embraces and playful games. He jackknifes into a shoulder stand with her balanced on the soles of his feet. She carries him upside down. And, joined together, they cantilever out in perfect equilibrium. If molasses could flow in any direction, that’s what they’d seem to be swimming in.
Pilobolites are often upside down. Lithe Jun Kuribayashi performs Wolken’s 1973 solo Pseudopodia as a lilting stream of back somersaults, and in
Gnomen (1997), an amiable guy ritual by Barnett and Wolken, Edwin Olvera gets spun while standing on his head by Herro, Minniefee, and Kuribayashi.
B’zrk and Megawatt (2004) weight this program toward unruliness, and some numbers go on too long in the same vein. But, hey, get over it. Summer’s here and everyone’s favorite fungus has sprouted yet again.