The Pilobolus modern dance group defies gravity with a unique vocabulary of improvisation and play. 

Artistic Contortion

While looking up Pilobolus on the Net, I found numerous entries referencing biology, including one stating that "Pilobolus shoots spores over grass or roots." Such links are not wholly unrelated to the dance company which formed while the 10 members were studying at Dartmouth College in 1971; they took their name from pilobolus, a feisty sun-loving fungus that grows in pastures and barnyards and can shoot spores as far away as eight feet. Additionally, the group's signature protean movements more closely resemble a mutating species, not movements more commonly linked to dance.

A typical Pilobolus work relies heavily on bodies pressed and contorted against one another to form oozing, dynamic sculptural shapes. They avoid balletic spins and phrases with dancers racing across the stage leaping in unison. Instead, bodies interlock, hang precariously from a shoulder or around a waist, or slither across the floor.

Humorous and primal, more architectural than ambulatory, Pilobolus dances are consistently created through group collaboration. Since its beginning, the company has featured not one but several artistic directors; the current directorship is shared by Robby Barnett, Alison Chase, Michael Tracy and Jonathan Wolken. The choreographic process works as follows: One director offers a vision of a work, receives input from fellow directors and then accepts additional feedback from dancers. Such collaborative efforts are rare in dance, which commonly features a singular choreographic vision.

When Pilobolus formed, the dancers set out to differentiate themselves from other companies. They set out to not repeat movements visible in other modern or ballet companies but to invent a unique vocabulary. Improvisation and play carried a large role in that initial distinction. Dancers are acrobatic and athletic, trained not only in dance, but sports and gymnastics.

With 2001 marking the company's 30th anniversary, it now celebrates a repertoire of 75 collaborative works, many of which, like "Day Two" created in 1980, with its unabashed indulgence in the delights of sliding on a watery tarp, consistently charms. Says Tracy, "We've invented [our vocabulary] ourselves, on our own bodies, and we're trying to invent something we haven't done or that we find interesting. ... A lot of people who find it too esoteric to go to the ballet can see our stuff. It's obviously new, it's obviously fresh, and it's obviously done for us to have fun ourselves."

Works included in the University of Richmond's show are the popular "Day Two," which features a tribal romp in the rain to music by Brian Eno and others. Other works presented are "Tsu-Ku-Tsu," which shows the company's predilection for playing with balance and includes music by Taiko drummer Leonard Eto. The more lyrical "Gnomen" portrays relationships, an ongoing theme of the company, here revealed with an all-male ensemble exploring a range of connections, from gentle cradling to more aggressive head-knocks. Lastly is "Symbiosis," created this year, with music by Kronos Quartet, a continuation of the company's preoccupation with balance.

With dancers continually morphing into shapes suggestive of life found in nature, the strangeness of Pilobolus gets tempered by an odd familiarity. Much of the company's appeal comes from witnessing bodies bend and meld together in peculiarly imaginative ways. Then again, the appeal may have something to do with fungus.


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