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The shape of things to come

A dance company named after fungi comes to SLO, armed with athlete-performers who think

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Consider the potential of a dance company that borrows its name from a fungus that thrives on excrement; that hails from a quintessentially charming, rural New England town; that stacks taut, athletic bodies like Lego bricks, folds them like origami, conflates, repurposes, and bewitches until you don’t know whether you’re watching dancers, athletes, acrobats, puppeteers, or magicians. The simple answer is that you’re watching Pilobolus, or at least you could be if you pencil a trip to Cal Poly’s Performing Arts Center on Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. into your calendar.

-  - PHOTO BY JOHN KANE
  • PHOTO BY JOHN KANE

Perhaps you think you’re not familiar with the contemporary dance troupe; among thousands of performances around the world, the 40-year-old company stole the show at the 2007 Academy Awards with a series of silhouettes, first as an enormous Oscar statue growing from a handful of smaller bodies, then by creating playful and painstakingly realistic tableaux from many of the films featured at that year’s Academy Awards.

A conversation with co-founder and Artistic Director Robby Barnett about what differentiates Pilobolus from more traditional companies quickly becomes a discussion about the organization’s expectations of its dancers. He peppers in references to “the group” and “the individual” but insists, without anyone having to ask, that Pilobolus is not a cult. It just happens to be a tight-knit group of people living in a small, rural community working toward a shared creative goal.

It’s pretty common for girls interested in dance, or pink tulle, to take ballet lessons as children. Men, Barnett explained, are more likely to discover contemporary dance in college. But while a background in dance is undeniably helpful to a company hopeful, the expectations of a Pilobolus member far exceed flexibility or proficiency in classical dance.

“What we are interested in,” Barnett revealed, “is athletes fundamentally. They need to be able to run and jump. We’re interested in what they read and how they express themselves. We’re interested in people who want to join a community. It’s not quite joining a cult, but it does require a certain commitment to collective action.”

It’s this unorthodox working model—a “collaborative contract” requiring everyone to have an opinion as well as “feel utterly personally responsible for the success of the group”—that resulted in the company taking a radical detour in its approach to collaborations some 15 years ago. At last summer’s American Dance Festival, Pilobolus debuted three new works, each created in conjunction with a different collaborator: a Japanese Butoh artist; engineers, programmers, and pilots of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; and the Grammy-winning band OK Go. Future plans include work with physical comedians and collaboration with an origami adept; who better to master the art of folding bodies?

“All is not lost”—the piece Pilobolus co-created with OK Go—is one of the five pieces the company is packing up and bringing to San Luis Obispo. Dancer-acrobat-athletes will also perform a piece Barnett calls an American classic, created in 1975 but left out of repertoire until recently, when a grant allowed the company to dust it off and reintroduce it to the spotlight. There’s also a piece created in 1973 when a dancer decided to explore the choreographic possibilities of simply rolling around the stage, not unlike an appendaged tumbleweed sans wind. It’s a reminder of modern dance’s inherent simplicity: “You’ve got light and you’ve got a body and floor,” Barnett said, summing up the situation.

- WEIGHT-SHARING:  Pilobolus takes the stage at the Performing Arts Center on Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $24 to $48. For more information, or to buy tickets, visit calpolyarts.org. -
  • WEIGHT-SHARING: Pilobolus takes the stage at the Performing Arts Center on Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $24 to $48. For more information, or to buy tickets, visit calpolyarts.org.

Then there’s “Megawatt,” an almost unlikely piece from an unlikely company, in which dancers twitch spastically to the beats of Primus, Radiohead, and Squarepusher. And they are working. This is the type of piece the company can pull out from its engorged carpetbag of tricks and point to as proof that what they do isn’t really trickery at all. The choreography is fun, but the endurance is Olympian. And the fact that it’s set to music you might hear at a rock concert illustrates how the company that simultaneously demands so much more of its performers—Don’t just dance! Read! Think! Leap! Run!—can also appeal to a broader audience than your typical avante garde dance company.

Working successfully together emboldened the various Pilobolus tentacles to believe they had discovered a collaborative working method that might translate across various channels of industry, what Barnett calls “a model for creative thinking in any field.”

“That starts to sound like bullshit,” he admitted. “It was to test our line of crap that we started this.”

And the decade and a half that followed has vindicated their belief. Without any sort of false reverence, they experiment in the sciences. They are, after all, an organism of sorts. And what better place for an organism to thrive than a scientific laboratory? The scientific process begins simply with a question, and so begins each new piece: feeling out unknown territory and filling the unknown spaces with bodies in motion.

But ultimately, science boils down to a question of survival. It’s a pertinent topic for an arts organization, and one that has managed to thrive for 40 years could be said to have mastered the delicate scientific art.

“If we have hard times we like to think that we can shrink,” Barnett revealed. “We believe in agility and flexibility.”

But above all, Pilobolus’s manifesto could be summed up in the company’s most basic choreographic particle: two bodies. Onstage, it’s probably less common to see a single dancer in motion than to see a couple wrapped together in some expressive fashion. This style of moving, or even reposing on stage, is called weight-sharing. Barnett jokes that the company’s style evolved this way because, in the beginning, the founders clutched one another for moral support. Soon enough, necessity became preference. Really, though, it expresses something much more meaningful about their approach to human contact. The metaphor is obvious. People support one another. And, if they don’t, they fall. But from this simple metaphor, Pilobolus has created a philosophy that enables them to step beyond intelligent entertainment.

“There is a manifestation of trust and human comedy,” Barnett said. “It’s sort of a utopian ideal for the way you hope people interact. It’s a round-about way of talking about what is actually the point.” 

Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach neither bends nor folds. Send comfortable chairs to aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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