- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Pilobolus is the name of a spunky little plant that grows in barnyard dung and shoots its spores in a long arc.

It’s also the title of a first dance effort by a bunch of inexperienced jocks at the then all-male Dartmouth College — a startlingly successful work that led to their forming a company of the same name.

That was 35 years ago, and small, feisty Pilobolus (the company) has become one of the brightest spots on the national and international dance circuit. It’s appeared three times at Olympic galas and moonlights its quirky, witty look appearing on TV commercials.

The seven-member group shoots into town for a one-night-only appearance tonight at the Warner Theater.

Besides its unusual style, which involves dancers cantilevering off one another or entwining like pretzels, Pilobolus is known for its collaborative approach. One or more of its three current artistic directors (Robby Barnett, Michael Tracy and Jonathan Wolken) are listed as choreographers with sometimes up to 11 collaborators credited — dancers past and present who worked with them on the piece.

This unusual creative approach is embedded in the company’s DNA. In a reflective mode, director Robby Barnett talks about the first funny, heady moments of plunging into the world of dance.

“We had the incredible force of ignorance,” he says. “We were a bunch of college athletes, completely unconstrained by preconceptions of what a dance was supposed to look like; we’d never seen a dance.

“Alison Chase was our teacher. She came into the dance studio and saw this grinning line of young men lined up to take a modern dance class because she was the only girl on campus. I think she realized, ‘Here’s a group of guys who can jump around like goats, but they’re certainly not going to be able to dance in any meaning of the word.’ So she said to us, ‘We’ll make a dance.’

“If she had come in and given us three months of dance class, I don’t think there would be any Pilobolus. But she saw a bunch of bright guys who could move around and turned us loose creatively. It was a little like Venus leaping from the head of Zeus.”

A couple of years later, they took that dance and two others to New York City and burst on the dance scene to rave reviews. They haven’t stopped since.

On tonight’s program, the first work, “Aquatica,” was commissioned by the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif.

“We thought it would be fun to perform it in the aquarium in front of a giant tankful of sharks,” Mr. Barnett says, adding that “there was a human audience, as well. The fish liked it — they gathered at the front of the tank to watch us. So we had piscatory as well as anthropological accord on that one.”

Also on tonight’s program: a solo from “The Empty Suitor,” a piece commissioned by the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Befitting that occasion, Mr. Barnett describes the broadly comic piece as “probably the best theatrical use anyone’s ever gotten out of PVC pipe.”

The director points to “Symbiosis” as a good example of their unique partnering approach. “When we began working together, we grabbed each other for physical as well as moral support. We attracted a lot of notice because the world didn’t really have any terminology to deal with four guys twisted together like proteins.

“When you put four people together, it reduces them to a very primitive organism,” he says about their tight-knit sculptural formations. “All of a sudden this organism begins to evolve. You learn to walk as a spider, and you reveal in turn the spider in us all. Mechanics becomes metaphor.”

Coming of age during the ‘60s, though, there is nothing ivory tower about Pilobolus.

“We had an idea that like-minded people could come together,” Mr. Barnett says. “We don’t necessarily believe that cooperative thinking is in every respect better, but it’s rare that you can go through life without having to work in groups. We believe that through making dances together we’ve discovered fundamental things about the way people can make things productively that have some measure of truth and beauty.”

Tonight’s program concludes with “Megawatt,” a work that shucks pretzel formations and goes for free, unfettered movement set to the sounds of Radiohead and Squarepusher.

WHAT: Pilobolus Dance Company

WHEN: Tonight at 8

WHERE: Warner Theatre

TICKETS: $27 to $57

PHONE: 202/785-9727

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