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“Fungi-Form”: The Story of Pilobolus Dance Theater

by Dina McDermott

February, 2004

Question: What is the only professional modern dance company named after a fungus in cow manure?

Question: What is the only professional, modern dance company to grow directly out of a college modern dance class?

Question: What is the only professional modern dance company directed by not a singular choreographer, but rather a group collaboration, using improvisational techniques?

The answer to all those questions is the world famous dance company, Pilobolus.

The group evolved from humble and improbable beginnings through classroom projects and composition assignments. Original founders Moses Pendleton, Robby Barnett, Jonathan Wolken and Michael Tracy met in 1971 as raw beginners in a modern dance class taught by Alison Chase at Dartmouth College. Their very first performance was as the opening act before a Frank Zappa concert at University of Massachusetts-Amhers, and what started out in 1970-71 with four men was augmented the following year with the addition of their dance teacher Alison Chase and newcomer Martha Clarke. The company debuted in New York at the Nikolais-Louis Theatre Lab, and caused a sensation at the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College in l974. And in 1977, Pierre Cardin -- who had just previously presented them in Paris, where they were the toast of the town -- produced their Broadway debut.

With early favorites such as "Ciona," "Monkshood Farewell" and "Untitled," Pilobolus put forth a new idea, revolutionizing what we think of as “dance," and incorporating elements of acrobatics, gymnastics, a ribald sense of humor and powerful physicality. Unique, multi-bodied weight sharing, convoluted and clever visual illusion, cantilevered bodies jutting out in precarious balances are the hallmarks of this group evena s the styles differ..

In a signature scene from "Untitled," two genteel, aristocratic young ladies -- at a garden party perhaps, such as might be pictured in a painting from the 1700’s -- suddenly they stand up and grow impossibly tall, giving the illusion of stilts. As we see a pair of hairy legs emerge from under the skirts, we realize that the women are standing on the shoulders of their male partners, who have been under hidden under the folds of their skirt. The whiff of sexual humor, the visual illusion, and the “wink” to the audience are all hallmarks of Pilobolus style.

"Day Too," set to music by Talking Heads/David Byrne and Brian Eno is a primal, highly energized, earthy work, with overtones of the Adam and Eve story. The sensuous "Shizen" is a kama sutra style duet for man and woman. "Walklyndon" is a funny, slapstick piece which involves different ways of ambulation, dancers hitting, bouncing off and dragging each other across the stag.

There is no preparation or cultural underpinning needed to appreciate the choreography of Pilobolus. The group has been wildly successful, and seems to appeal most markedly to an audience with no preconceived ideas of what constitutes dance. Rather than using pre-defined steps or vocabulary -- as does the Martha Graham Dance Company, for example -- the choreographic process of Pilobolus has always been a group collaboration or improvisation.

The process starts out with a general idea or concept. Co-founder Moses Pendleton says “We may spend a couple of weeks on what we call gathering material; in a way it’s just like an improvisation. We go into the studio and just work and play on various moves. Eventually, one move may link to another or you may find a particular image that will allow you to start thinking in terms of where a piece may go … Eventually, we might begin to focus in on one particular idea from the movement … Then the piece starts to develop.” [1]

Because they had no dance background, their style grew out of a physical necessity. “We felt that maybe we couldn’t dance, so why try to? When we began, we didn’t really feel free, moving in space individually. We literally HAD to hang onto each other….It wasn’t so difficult if you did create this shape, a thing that moved. We began to play around by combining bodies.” [2]

Today the company is based in bucolic Washington Depot, Connecticut, and is comprised of four artistic directors and six dancers. Their unique group process continues along with extensive touring. Pilobolus recently celebrated their 30th anniversary, and in 2000, received the Samuel L. Scripps Award from the American Dance Festival. The group has also won the Berlin Critics Prize, been featured on Dance in America, and has inpired the spin-off companies, Momix and Pilobolus Too.

The final lingering question is, does Pilobolus aesthetic fall under the umbrella of “dance?" Although the founders had no background in gymnastics, early descriptions or reviews of the group frequently this term to describe their work. In her book "AfterImages" New Yorker critic Arlene Croce refers to them as a “acrobatic-mime troupe."[3]

If nothing else, Pilobolus has set the precedent that allowed other comparable groups such as Cirque de Soleil, Blue Man Group and Elizabeth Streb to shelter under the umbrella of dance, dance/theater or physical theater. What separates dance from other genres is an open question, to be decided over time by audiences, critics and dance historians alike.

Regardless of how we define them, they remain wildly successful, with over one hundred dances and thirty years under their belt, and for their many fans, they are, as described by former Pilobolus dancer and journalist John Job, the “most unpretentious, dazzling, original, exhilarating, popular, daring, libido-wrenching dance mothers on earth."[4]

[1] The Vision of Modern Dance, Jean Morrison Brown, ed.; p. 156
[2] Brown, p.154
[3] Afterimages, Anthology of Reviews, Arlene Croce; p. 214
[4] “Puh-LOB-o-liss”; by John Job; Austin Chronicle, (TX); 3/2/2001

For Marshall Huntenberger's review of Pilobolus from February 2004, click here.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt

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