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A creature of organic dance in motion

by Dennis Coleman

September, 2008

Earlier this year, Adelaide -- boutique festival city -- was selected as the debut launching pad for the brilliant, almost life-changing performance of  the Pilobolus Dance Company in Australia… and what a performance! It moved the audience through the Neanderthal, the primeval before the dawn of time, to an unfolding of natural mystical nymph like 'deep in the forest' phenomena -- a journey of evolution of aquatica to 'higher order' more complex life forms.  There was embryonicembrace and sensuality, amazing feats of strength and agility and a showcasing of the of the human form in all its beauty and nuances. Deeply profound and insightful, yet flippant and carnival-like in parts with mumbo jumbo ritualistic 'Worship' literally turnedon its head, exuding spirituality and ultimatly sacrifice in its place. Embrace and support was a major underpinning theme with the seemingly effortless and graceful manipulation of every sinew and joint possible and multi-dimensional balancing acts, enveloping of bodies in beautifully orchestrated poses. It was architecture of symmetry, of harmony with the richly layered music. The finale with the frivolity and pure thrill of the water slides and playful splashing engaged the audience yet again and etched this brilliant performance into the psyche and inner spirit of all present resulting in spirited applause.

Reviews in Adelaide, both professional and public commentary, were generally complimentary with Matt Byrne, theatre critic, referring to the performances in glowing terms. In commenting on one of the major quartet features he wrote:

‘Gnomen was created in 1997, and is the perfect example of the Pilobolus philosophy. Co-choreographers Robby Barnett and Jonathan Wolken have produced a piece of gentle genius that completely captures the crowd. Four amazing, interchangeable male dancers move through an intriguing, pulsating series of movements.  The sense of teamwork, strength, vulnerability, selflessness and triumph of their work held the audience enthralled. This is true ensemble work, where every dancer supports each other. They lift, drive, challenge, embrace, roll, tumble, often entwined and always in complete physical harmony.’

So, what exactly is Pilobolus? As the interview with Robbie Barnett will unravel, Pilobolus is a dance group with a difference. Dance it certainly is but the movement in its organic nature has evolved far beyond mere choreographed movement to music; in fact the music is often custom fitted around the dance movements as the ‘Pilobolus’ emerges in its evolving state.

Pilobolus continues to ‘mutate’ and transform ‘biologically’. The Connecticut-based company, which was founded at Dartmouth College in 1971 by Robbie Barnett and Jonathan Wolken, is a celebration of the human form and of ‘biological’ processes.

In its ‘You Tube’ site, snippets can be seen of ‘shadow plays’ produced live by Pilobolus on stage. A cluster of six individuals almost instantaneously transform themselves into an elephant silhouette which is then ‘fed’ by a keeper: another scene has a dancer transforming instantly into a dog which is also ‘fed’ and then chases a frisby. A car with two passengers motors along and then unpacks as six individuals holding various component parts including the steering wheel and roof while a plank (chassis) with the ‘wheels’ is taken off stage. In the words of Robbie Barnett, Pilobolus is constantly seeking ‘to construct ourselves into a group shape, something that we hope makes references beyond itself, ’a constantly evolving, organically dynamic being.

To further explore the concepts and ideology behind the performance and company, I interviewed Robbie Barnett soon after the performance. He was in the middle of finishing a new work the great American puppeteer Basil Twist but willingly made himself available for an extensive in-depth interview.

Dennis Coleman: To me -- Pilobolus is unique in that it is a life form in itself -- i.e., I imagine most other dance companies just do performances as such. They all have their own forte and style but they are not a 'creature' in themselves with an almost organic growth springing from the 'living' organism. Am I right in thinking Pilobolus is perhaps truly unique in this way?

Robbie Barnett: We have always believed in the power of ignorance... in not knowing what you can't do.  So, our works are built from the bottom up with a physical vocabulary that is developed through a process of invention and discovery, reflecting, I believe, some fundamental priority of content over form rather than designing a structure and then filling out its predetermined volume. The expansion and composition of physical material is allowed to follow its own course and it tends over time to determine shape... or to put it the other way around...  a work will inevitably reflect in its final form, for better of worse, the organic growth of its germinal material.  (A disinclination to choreograph to music is one example of our resistance to confining form.  Rather than following in movement the development of a composer’s thinking, we prefer to pursue our own train of thought and then... either work with a composer to create musical environments that support and sustain our movement... or else find pre-recorded music that fits our needs, draping it over the movement like a cape rather than squeezing our choreographic hand into somebody else’s sonic glove.)

We never set out to found a dance company.  We wanted to make dances and perform them and we found a pliable structure that allowed that.  Pilobolus is opportunistic and protoplasmic.  When we see food, we throw out a pseudopod, move toward the nourishment and incorporate it and our shape changes as a result -- not always in ways we can anticipate, but naturally and historically, there is, after all, a sort of Darwinian winnowing of the weakest.   The sands are littered with the bleaching bones of failed arts organizations, and we are still here.

So, proud as we are of some of the works we have created over the years, I feel it is Pilobolus, the arts organism, which is our most original creation.

DC: Are there any particular 'streams of consciousness' or dance influences that Pilobolus has drawn inspiration from over time?

RB: In 1969 we saw a performance by Alwin Nikolai, whose fundamental interest in evocative image-making was immediately appealing and gave us an early sense of how broadly dance could be interpreted.   Then, several years thereafter, we were both encouraged and befriended by Nikolai and his partner, Murray Louis.  That sense of warmth, welcome, and professional generosity was a model for how one should act in our little world and we have tried to keep the faith.

DC: What happens when one of the 'limbs ' breaks away -- i.e. somebody leaves --is there a kind of 'bodily grieving' process as the organism re-adjusts?

RB: Max Weber talks about the "routinization of charisma".  As we see it, this has to do with establishing structures that will allow fundamental values to be transmitted through time. We hope that our fundamental values -- collaboration, community, creativity -- are imminent in our work methods and that they will be sustainable.

To put a finer point on this, we, as children of the 1960s, were products of a society that encouraged cooperative activity.   We applied that ethos to making art, and we did it not just through reasoned discussion but actually physically connected to one another, so the works produced this way became a sort of communal abstract expressionism, a form of art that uniquely reflected the manner in which it was made.  And the dances themselves, the strange fruit of our enterprise, are a record of sorts that we lay down -- social and psychological interactions over a specific period of time.  It is an authentic act of self-analysis, in which we find out what it is we’re thinking about -- this particular moment or this day or this month. So, to conflate the questions of evolution and longevity, we have a theory that the pleasure an audience takes in the work of Pilobolus goes beyond simple appreciation for thoughtful content. When we go on stage and present this work, we've come to believe there is an analytic transference of sorts -- that the collaborative process through which we make dances is so defining that the resulting vocabulary becomes a metaphor for productive communal activity and that the audience experiences a particular kind of collective pleasure at the physical manifestation of a social ideal.  

That means, I hope, that when dancers leave, we are changed but unwounded.

DC: Evolution is one of the major themes running like a thread through the performance segments. Can you comment on this?

RB: Here's my take on evolution.  When we began to work together in tightly connected groups, we were taking complex organisms capable of smoothly articulated motion and attaching them in ways that limited their mobility, reducing them effectively to kinesthetically simpler animals.  Our challenge then was to coordinate this new compound creature, to make it move and, slowly, to dance.  It quickly became apparent that the physical laws defining and limiting size and shape in the natural world were acutely at play with the compound Pilobolus and as we applied ourselves to each other in various ways we became a sort of Kiplingesque ‘Just So’ story, posing questions the likes of ‘When did the snake learn to wriggle on his belly?… how does the kangaroo balance on his tail?… why doesn't the centipede trip on its own feet?’ And once we leaned to slither and hop and ripple in sequence, we began to modulate, first speed, then quality, fast, slow, diffident, sneaky, insouciant .  The lower order organism we had invented began to exhibit more complex behaviour, began again to evolve, and the cycle started to resolve.  We gather as a clump and move as a spider, revealing in turn the spider in us all.    We enter through mechanics and emerge as metaphor.

That said, I've always felt that science and art are related quests, and Howard Gardner has a nice description of primitive science as that which attempts to classify objects and weave mythic explanations.  That's about as close to the Pilobolus creative process that I can get.  It's as if we stumbled, like the crocodile or the ginkgo, upon some genuinely naive but effective formula for survival.  You can hide from yourselves but not from the laws of nature.  The intense focus on simple goals allows the discovery of efficient means, and we discovered that the miraculous side-effect of efficiency is grace.

DC: Another Adelaide writer I Googled, suggests that at times the dancers looked as if they were “outside their  bodies looking on as some kind of external force controlled them.” Is there any credence in this idea?

RB: We tell dancers they need to apply 80% of their concentration to what's going on inside and the final 20% to their third eye, looking down, composing, editing.  The equation can be fiddled but, as far as we're concerned, this concept is sound.

DC: The New York Times referred to a "36 year old conversation between art and athletics -- acrobatics liquefied into poetry --" in one of its articles.   How accurate is this?

RB:  A context in which one finds linked bodies moving in three dimensions is rare and the vocabulary available to describe it is sparse.   Steven Pinker is convinced that thought precedes language.  I'm willing to concede the point but think good words speed complex thought wonderfully.  That said, we've always felt that references to acrobatics just reflect a lack of imagination.

DC:  Can you elaborate on the ‘unique weight sharing approach’?

RB: The primordial ‘Pilobolus’ in dance was an earnest huddle in sweatpants and panic, surveying the prospect of life’s first choreographic endeavour.  The notion that we should stand by ourselves, alone, in front of other people, was inconceivable, so motivated more by fear than collegiality, we clung to each other, for moral as well as physical support, and in this way, co-mingled and mutually-supporting, began to build dances en masse.

The training of dancers has traditionally focused upon the centering of a single body moving alone through space.  Our approach -- and it was one arrived at through nothing more than necessity -- was to construct ourselves into a group shape, something that we hoped made references beyond itself - to plants or insects or cell walls -- and then to try to make it move.  We subsequently discovered that when people dance together, it is customarily done in pairs.  The dance world seemed not to possess terminology to deal with a clump of four men twisted together like proteins and we attracted a lot of curious attention.  And incredibly, the possibilities seemed to open in front of us as we explored the opposing and mirrored sides of this new world, the first a purely physical one where weights and balances and the forces of tension and release yielded continually surprising ways of moving,. and the second a sort of parallel kingdom of psychological suggestion where, because we were constantly in physical contact with each other, the resonance of touch flickered through all our interactions inside this other domain governed by emotion and implication.

Dennis Coleman, Adelaide, international arts writer:

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