Saturday, November 1, 2014

As always, Pilobolus (mostly) pleases

I admit to loving Pilobolus, even if my serious-dance friends tend to sniff at my affection for them.  "Yes, they're fun, but . . . aren't they just frat boys in tights?" seems to be the consensus about them among the cognoscenti.

To which I can only reply: "You're saying that like it's a bad thing!"

Because I'll always love this troupe for taking dance where it never went before - into boyhood, to be precise, or at least into the physical friskiness familiar to athletes and (yes) fratboys the world over. Girls are welcome here, too - as long as they're tomboys, or at least ready to mix it up with the jocks; for I can't think of a Pilobolus dance that actually focuses on women - or even on romance, the staple of just about every other form of dance. Pilobolus is just guy stuff, period - so it focuses on a clever comedy built of brawn, butts, and pits and pecs - the whole anatomy is embraced by Pilobolus, in fact. Sometimes the troupe can be truly thoughtful (although they also can be just undergraduate-profound); but they're always physically virtuosic, as well as fun.

And their visit to Celebrity Series last weekend seemed to showcase every aspect of their by-now-global brand.  The standout performance of the evening was a wonderfully kicky video done with OK GO ("All is Not Lost," above) - this time played out live onstage even as the resulting imagery was projected behind the performers. Here Pilobolus meets Busby Berkeley (and Esther Williams!) in a perky little pop number - and done live you can fully appreciate the brilliant precision of  the piece's anatomic kaleidoscopy (is that a word? I hope so!).

"On the Nature of Things." Photo: Grant Halverson
Elsewhere, at least in the first half of the program, the news was also good.  The opening number, On the Nature of Things, felt a bit like the troupe's philosophy stripped bare, as Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern and Antoine Banks-Sullivan, clad only in thongs, spent most of the number wrestling one another atop a kind of post-modern Greco-Roman column.

They were at first joined by a woman - the fearless Jordan Kriston - but tellingly, she was eventually tossed aside, and what began as almost-mournful dance became just struggle, as the two men wrestled on in whatever it is locks men together in quasi-erotic combat.

Now as a gay man, I admit I'm highly intrigued by the ambiguous line between the homo-erotic and the homosexual - and so, obviously, is Pilobolus itself; they've become more comfortable with addressing that issue, and On the Nature of Things pushes one of the questions echoing at the bottom of their ethos through several haunting conceptual hoops without ever settling on an answer.

The third hit of the evening was Automaton (created in 2012 with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Renée Jaworski). Here the troupe aimed again for the profound, and often hit the mark: the titular "automaton" was a kind of network-generated robot, clearly meant to evoke the millennial persona, which is amplified and extended with all manner of digital devices. And mirrors - lots of mirrors; the cyborg-as-narcissist has never been expressed as accurately in dance as it is here - even though the members of the network seemed to morph into each other as they dashed among the reflections that filled the stage. Finally, though, that multi-faceted self-image was transcended - as the mirrors collapsed - and something like community began to take shape.  (Hmmmm - let's hope Pilobolus is right about that!)

Alas, things took a turn toward the superficial in the second half of the show. A Houdini-inspired collaboration with Penn & Teller, [esc], came off as far more Penn & Teller than Pilobolus - it was all about torment and power and S&M gear in a half-campy, half-carny atmosphere. The piece did get off one resonantly clever gambit in a sequence in which the amazingly supple Derion Loman played a hapless airline passenger whom airport security eventually hog-tied and crammed into his own carry-on (remember Houdini's act was all about "escaping" from oppressive regimes!). But elsewhere the troupe stumbled - in one moment, for instance, a female dancer's head was stuffed into a plastic bag, which only triggered unpleasant undertones of violence against women styled as entertainment.  And the zippered jock straps and stripper poles that the men wound up being bound to seemed more trashy than transgressive. I guess I just don't think Pilobolus "does" creepy all that well.

And unfortunately the last number, "Sweet Purgatory," likewise recalled artistic issues the troupe has struggled with over time - indeed the number hails from far back in the Pilobolus catalogue (1991). But alas, set to Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony, its attempt at tragic feeling often felt self-conscious, and its musicality was only intermittent; more often than not we were reminded that the Piloboli are athletes first, and dancers second. The troupe's tremendous success has come from their dazzling ability to balance on the cusp of those two identities. In at least the first half of this program, they showed that's still an exciting place to be.

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