Wednesday, December 8, 2010

All about the boy

Dance, Balanchine once famously opined, is a woman. But I think the guys of Pilobolus beg to differ. When they burst upon the scene in the early 70's, with their bevy of balances and flips and lifts, it seemed as if they'd turned dance itself on its head; their brand of movement wasn't about romance, much less love - indeed, it wasn't about girls at all. It was about guy stuff, about frat house horsing around, about the frisky body awareness of young athletes - and rather than focusing on elevation and extension, it was all about the body core, about biceps and butts and and "Dude, you're putting your head where?" In a word, it was all about the boy.

Of course you could argue that what Pilobolus did - and does - wasn't dance at all; they rarely keep a beat, and indeed sometimes run through their acrobatic paces in complete silence.  But whatever it was that they did, it was clearly amazing, funny and smart, and in its own quirky way graceful and beautiful. Pilobolus took the world by storm, and is now celebrating its 40th anniversary (yes) with a tour that touched down (thanks to Celebrity Series) at the Cutler Majestic last weekend. The show stretched from the troupe's punchy beginnings - (Walklyndon, from 1971) to its latest techo-noodlings (a preview of Seraph, which features flying robots from MIT). But while the survey was weighted toward later work, it was the earlier pieces on the program, Walklyndon and Gnomen, which left the best and deepest impressions.

Whether that hints at an artistic malaise at work in the troupe is hard to say - although it's worth noting the company is still recovering from the death of one of its founders, Jonathan Wolken, in 2009. But then again, it bears mentioning that Wolken's most recent work - Redline - was by far the weakest thing I've ever seen the company do. Dressed as techno-warriors out of Mortal Kombat, the Piloboli stomped about, arms churning, or threw themselves into ever higher and more dangerous flips, all to a thunderingly loud hip-hop "soundscape," but to no discernible point or effect.  The piece seemed a complete void.  Another recent number, The Transformation, was likewise disappointing.  One of the company's few works for a single man and woman, it was little more than a cruel joke - it consisted of a strange bit of shadowplay in which a godlike man transformed a powerless woman into a dog. Sometimes it seems the Pilobolus frathouse can suddenly turn into Animal House.

Other jokes were more light-hearted. Walklyndon, with its zillions of zooming pedestrians, is still a hoot, and Seraph was sweet, if a little light; the MIT hovercraft performed splendidly, but the "dance" isn't much (so far) beyond a few gags about Close Encounters and alien "looove."

Still, at least one recent work, Rushes, co-created in 2007 by artistic director Robby Barnett and Israeli choreographers Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak, hinted at greater depth.  This long, strange piece of meta-theatre, set amid a dozen pale chairs, never quite came into focus - perhaps in part because it's about dreaming and dream logic (one of the dancers even went to sleep at one point, as squiggly projections played about his head); but its ongoing scenario of a party seemingly gone bad was often eerily compelling. Clowns and drunks and horny party girls attended that central dreamer, but the resulting situations and relationships all seemed to drift and melt into each other at will, and no one seemed able to decisively act or sometimes even move (at one point the dreamer simply flailed around, his limbs enmeshed in all those chairs). The bad dream ends touchingly however, when one girl finally clings to the dreamer for dear life as all those chairs provide an impromptu path - but from, and toward, exactly what it's hard to say.

And then there's Gnomen, the troupe's heartbreaking tribute to Jim Blanc, a Pilobolus dancer who died of AIDS. In this piece you can feel the Piloboli crashing into the limits of their own guy-ness and trying to feel their way out the other side. Choreographed for four men clad in just black briefs (at top), the piece includes the usual Pilobolus rough-housing and cruel jokes, but this time the cruelty is tinged with guilt and regret. The quartet begins by taunting a lonely member of their crew, but by the end they're cradling him on their feet, rocking him to sleep (at top) - or perhaps to death. It's a haunting evocation of how far guy-love can go, and how far it can't go. More, please.

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