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Grown Up, but Young at Heart

Pilobolus started as something of a college lark. Now it is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a major new work, 'Aeros.'

September 29, 1996|Susan Reiter | Susan Reiter is a freelance writer based in New York

WASHINGTON DEPOT, Conn. — The sign outside the small, nondescript building reads "Pilobolus Inc."--a surprisingly businesslike way of identifying a troupe that for 25 years has been associated with a notably freewheeling, idiosyncratic approach to dance. From its spontaneous, now-legendary origins--a bunch of Dartmouth College jocks find their way into a dance class in 1971, decide to try making some dances of their own, and soon find themselves in demand all over the country and the world--to its enduring reliance on collaborative teams of choreographers and improvisation as the launch pad for new work, Pilobolus has always been associated with youthful ingenuity and the communal spirit of its flower-child-era beginnings.

Pilobolus today is all grown up. A 25th anniversary is a significant milestone for a modern-dance company, especially at a time when survival year to year is a struggle.

In celebration, Pilobolus will offer its newest creation, "Aeros," choreographed by all four of its artistic directors, and six other works representative of it's first quarter-century when it performs at Pepperdine University in Malibu on Friday and Saturday, and in Glendale at the Alex Theatre the following Tuesday. (Pepperdine is one of the commissioners of "Aeros".)

"Because we didn't know what dance was, we weren't trying to make our dances look like anything else," recalls Robby Barnett, who joined Pilobolus in its first year and is now one of its artistic directors. "We were just trying to put movement together that was interesting to us for whatever reason."

Along with founders Moses Pendleton and Jonathan Wolken, and fellow troupe members Michael Tracy, Alison Chase and Martha Clarke, Barnett was part of Pilobolus' rise to prominence in the mid-1970s. Of that group, only Pendleton and Clarke are no longer affiliated with Pilobolus; Tracy, Chase and Wolken share the title artistic director with Barnett.

Pilobolus' initial reputation grew from works in which imaginatively linked bodies seemed to become intricate, pulsating organisms with a life of their own. Those pieces, with their athletic movement style and surprising lifts, captivated audiences, but some observers questioned whether it should be classified as dance.

"We became known early for acrobatic partnering. People referred to gymnastics, although we avoided real technical gymnastics," notes Tracy. The dancers demonstrated a wider range by making humorous and witty use of their moves in works such as "Monkshood's Farewell" (1974) and "Molly's Not Dead" (1978), and tapped a vein of Lewis Carroll-like fantasy in the perennially popular "Untitled" (1975).

The founders' interest in dance and approach to it reflected the charged atmosphere of the early 1970s, recalls Wolken, whose outgoing, garrulous manner and mop of curly hair still suggest a hint of counterculture spirit. "Things were perceived a bit differently then. Remember the times. Personal decisions and commitments were very important: to support the war or not, what were you going to do and why? Dance was viable as a way of not doing certain things and of doing a lot of others. There was a real excitement going around about people being expressive in motion. Pilobolus became our graduate school, a place to try things out and invent forms, a kind of serendipity-driven amalgam of physicality and mentality."

Wolken is sitting in the cluttered office space that houses the business side of Pilobolus. Like the other artistic directors, now all in their mid-40s, he is responsible for helping to run the operation as well as for creating and rehearsing the repertory. His focus is on fund-raising; Barnett deals with the dancers' needs on tour; Tracy works on projects outside of the concert dance format, such as industrials and videos; and Chase is in charge of the Pilobolus Institute, which provides master classes and other educational outreach services.

Headquarters for the entire enterprise is this pleasantly green Connecticut town a couple of hours northeast of New York City. The studio used for rehearsal is a mile down the road from the office, in the Washington Club, which is sometimes unavailable if a wedding or other event is scheduled. The dancers live in the area, at least during the week, and the calmer pace of the New England setting has an impact on what they do in the studio, says Rebecca Anderson, a UCLA graduate who has danced with Pilobolus since 1994:

"Because we're not in New York, we're a little more isolated. We're out in the country, and it's a less formal environment. That contributes to the feel of the work. And because it's such a small group, we all have to really trust each other."

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