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Dance Review

Grasping for the gasps

The Pilobolus troupe's astonishing feats of athletic prowess are

October 26, 2009|CHARLES McNULTY | THEATER CRITIC

The din at a Pilobolus performance is like that of no other dance crowd. If you were blindfolded, you'd have every reason to assume you were attending a small-scale circus, what with the enthusiastic applause for acrobatic feats, the exhalations of wonder at extreme contortion and the bursts of laughter at clown-show antics.

The company sets out to rouse spectators through a program of nonstop visual astonishment, and the biggest affront wouldn't be boos but the reverential silence of a ballet recital.

The bill performed this weekend at the Ahmanson Theatre (part of the Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center 2009-10 season) offered an impressively entertaining if not quite revelatory sampling of Pilobolus' athletic revelry. The recent works paired in the first half, "Redline" (2009) and "Rushes" (2008), reflected strikingly divergent theatrical modes and methods, while the older pieces that made up the second half, "Gnomen" (1997) and "Day Two" (1980), flaunted the group's signature protean magic in which human forms transfigure in ways that appear to defy fundamental principles of anatomy and physiology.

The audience was exultant at Friday night's show, and the old debate over purism and populism that have riled the dance cognoscenti for a good chunk of Pilobolus' nearly 40-year history were drowned out by the adulation. If the company's style is good enough for "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and the Academy Awards ceremony, so be it. If corporate advertisers can't get enough of the moves, more power to the dancers who collectively dreamed them up. Commercial appeal isn't synonymous with compromise, even if the dangers are obvious. When fluidity reigns supreme, only a prig would fret over high and low brow-splitting.

Which isn't to say that aesthetic limitations can't be singled out. Pilobolus' physical virtuosity lacks a certain meditative grace -- all those gymnastics coups, eliciting a running chorus of oohs and ahhs, inevitably subvert the lyrical mood. And a downside to the collaborative development of the work is that thematic coherence tends to fall victim to a moment-to-moment (top that!) sensationalism.

This is a different order of criticism from the kind that dogmatically finds fault in the choreographic pedigree being drawn from sources beyond traditional dance or complains about the subordinate role that music plays in the overall tableau. Widely enjoyed as the company is, Pilobolus can't possibly be for everyone.

The opening piece, "Redline," choreographed (in tandem with others) by artistic director and co-founder Jonathan Wolken, makes the least impact. The work brings six dancers, decked in Liz Prince's red and black neo-militant costumes, into line formation. To a pounding electronic score by Battles, DJ Champion and Autechre, the performers march, stomp and hike, eventually accelerating into more frenetic activity that incorporates martial arts, warrior yoga poses and fearsome calisthenics. There are dazzling combative moments -- a windmill of arms that looks like it could decapitate, aerial assaults requiring coordinated teamwork and stoicism -- but the overall impression is as transitory as the casualties in a violent video game.

Far more imaginatively enticing is "Rushes," a Fellini-esque carnival enlivened by floating mimes and a circle of scrambling chairs, all of which is propelled into motion for a stretch by Miles Davis jazz. Co-created with artistic director Robby Barnett and the Israeli choreographers Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak, the piece conjures a community of isolated figures who conjoin and break apart with an antic mutability. The dancers don't so much connect as wear one another, a slapstick accessorizing of extra arms and legs that looks as sad as it does silly. Even the chairs, which circulate as fleetly as the bodies occasionally occupying them, get worn as bracelets and leggings. The picture stays frustratingly hazy, but the tragicomic experience continually tantalizes with the prospect of what might come next, and the use of Peter Sluszka's film animation, which relates what has transpired to the illogic of dreams, is inspired.

"Gnomen," dedicated to the memory of Jim Blanc, a Pilobolus dancer who died of complications from AIDS, is the most muscularly poetic of the four pieces.

A male quartet in black briefs -- choreographed by Barnett, Wolken and others -- tests out the possibilities of relationships as music by Paul Sullivan and throat singing by Matt Kent resound. At times, the dancers (each uniquely excellent) resemble a lump of flesh; at others, they differentiate into individual identities, almost like a cell undergoing mitosis. Strength and flexibility keep setting benchmarks as the men become acquainted with distance and intimacy. The physical vocabulary may be too attention-grabbing for such a delicate poignancy (at one point a fellow is amazingly hoisted on the bionic feet of his comrades), but the inventive commingling is infinitely watchable.

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