Talk about body language. Like all dance companies, Pilobolus is all about movement, but even more so it’s concerned with the human body, and the strange and myriad forms it can assume. This is all in the name of art, of course. For Pilobolus Dance Theatre (the group’s full name), synchronicity is just as important as choreography.
It’s a unique form of modern dance, physical and beautiful, using elements of contortion and gymnastics — at times gravity-defying, at times ethereal and sweet, always what you’d least expect. Most recently, Pilobolus dancers performed (in silhouette) at the 79th Academy Awards; bodies would quickly pile upon bodies, behind a large screen, until they became an image or logo from the nominated movies: “The Departed,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” et cetera.
Pilobolus (the word literally refers to a type of fungus) grew out of a series of dance classes at Dartmouth College in 1971. Back then, Dartmouth was an all-male school, and a modern dance class offered by Alison Chase brought together a group of slacking guys who saw an easy “A.” “It was a little bit like just giving us finger paints,” said Robby Barnett. “We were given some materials, like us. And we fooled around and figured out what we could do.” They discovered that they had a talent for making a sort of moving human sculpture, by grasping one another, supporting and sharing weight as they moved. “The idea of standing alone in front of people was impossible,” Barnett said. “So we kind of clung to each other for moral as well as physical support.”
Barnett, Chase, Michael Tracy and Jonathan Wolken became the founders and artistic directors of Pilobolus Dance Theatre (Chase left Pilobolus last year to collaborate with Moses Pendleton in Momix, the experimental dance company he started, with her help, in 1980). Today the company — including young male and female dancers — is internationally known for its unique approach to choreography, from the visceral to the sensual to the abjectly humorous. There are no limits to Pilobolus’ reach. There are 85 works in their repertoire, with titles like “Prism,” “Megawatt,” “Monkey and the White Boat Demon,” “Aeros,” “Elysian Fields” and “The Hand That Mocked, the Heart That Fed.” Clearly, this is not “The Nutcracker Ballet.”
Along with the touring company, Pilobolus maintains a teaching facility, and conducts workshops for non-professional dancers — young and old — to see what sort of body-bending ideas they might come up with. “We believe we’re teaching creative thinking,” Barnett explained. “What’s amazing is that once you can kind of create that mood, people will do things that will astound you.” That, of course, is how it all started in the first place.