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Flexibility is key to dance troupe Pilobolus' survival

DanceBrian EnoMerce CunninghamAcademy AwardsMarilyn MansonSpongeBob SquarePants (tv program)

When ruminating on the recent history and current incarnation of Pilobolus, Jonathan Wolken, an ardent conversationalist, prefers to speak in metaphors and images. These include: Picasso's Blue Period, the plate spinning act employed by circus clowns, helical structures and second winds.

In case that wasn't clear, he adds, "In many cultures, one thinks of cycles. You could say we're on our second time around, not retracing an original circle but going around again in a good way."

Now almost 40 years old, Pilobolus, the acrobatic modern dance company that Wolken co-founded with three fellow Dartmouth students in 1971, had spent some of its 20s and 30s mired in midlife crisis. Plagued by internal strife and struggling to remain financially solvent, the company's four artistic directors essentially decided they needed a boss and, in 2004, hired Itamar Kubovy to be executive director.

Five years later and despite the departure of longtime artistic director Alison Chase in 2005, Pilobolus seems not only alive and well but galvanized by its efforts to reinvent itself. With an operating budget of just more than $4 million and a packed touring schedule, the company, headquartered in rural Connecticut, also has branched out in recent years by forging successful collaborations with other artists and applying its methods of communal art making to educational and corporate projects.

"It's taken all of us some time to regroup, and we've gone through crests and valleys over the years, but we've never allowed any of that to stop the momentum of our creative lives," says Robby Barnett, who serves as artistic director of Pilobolus along with Wolken and Michael Tracy. "As an organization, we've always been able to barrel forward, push that engine along."

"They're a very tenacious group of people," observes Mirra Bank, whose 2002 film "Last Dance" documented a tumultuous collaboration between the company and children's book author Maurice Sendak. "For all the sturm and drang in my film, you can see why they've been around for so long. They don't compromise easily, but their proximity to each other forces them to work things out. Plus the element of risk is always built into the way they work. Risk is a stimulant for them."

Appearing at the Music Center this weekend, Pilobolus will offer a lineup of dances (full of the now expected somersaults, high-flying flips and body contortions) that pay tribute to its longevity and different phases of its history. There's the 1981 "Day Two," featuring music by Brian Eno and the Talking Heads; the 1997 "Gnomen," dedicated to the memory of Pilobolus dancer Jim Blanc, who died from complications from AIDS; the quirky and highly praised 2007 "Rushes"; and this year's "Redline," a propulsive dance by Wolken full of martial references and indicative of his recent interest in working as a solo choreographer.

Expanding its circle

While all these dances reflect a creative process in which both the choreographers and dancers actively generate material through hours of free-form experimentation, "Rushes" also points to Pilobolus' most recent efforts at collaborative risk-taking. Co-created with the Israeli dance makers Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak, the dance marked the first time the company worked with outside choreographers and inaugurated a wave of other artistic partnerships, including with puppeteer Basil Twist; Steven Banks, the head writer of "SpongeBob SquarePants"; and, most recently, author and cartoonist Art Spiegelman.

"Our urgency has been to expand the circle of people, to let the organism that is Pilobolus stretch and incorporate more thinkers and makers," Kubovy says. "Pilobolus has never been the vision of one person but of many, so there's enormous potential here."

After five years on the job, Kubovy, 42, can articulate the general gestalt of Pilobolus with the same zest and loquaciousness as its artistic directors. "Itamar has been a fantastically positive situation for us," says Barnett, 59. "We can accomplish five times more with him, plus he has stimulated a lot of conversation about the future. We're all getting older, so the question is: Are we going to be like Merce [Cunningham], fold up shop and say it was a great 100 years or are we interested in moving further into the future?"

Kubovy, who had worked as a theater and film director, says he did nothing "but listen to people" during his first year on the job. "As I listened, I started recognizing the things that seemed important, the things that seemed unimportant and realized that the important and unimportant had gotten mixed up," he says, referring to instances when the artistic directors became bogged down in their own collaborative process and unable to make swift decisions, lost sight of lucrative opportunities.

In addition to championing collaborations with outside artists, Kubovy also saw potential to expand the company's outside ventures, which have included dancing in car commercials, to a Marilyn Manson video and an appearance on the 2007 Oscars. And no, he doesn't think that serious dance artists who do commercial work are selling out. "Whether it's a commercial or a dance, it's all just material," he says. "We use the same central ideas for all our projects."

"It's all about our method, the ways in which groups of people can get together to make things. So we do things we're interested in and we'll make anything, books, shows, car commercials," Barnett says.

It helps that the company's aesthetic, which revels in a gymnastic movement vocabulary, fantastical imagery, vaudevillian shtick and other theatrical devices, lends itself to mainstream appeal.

At the Joyce Theater in New York for example, Pilobolus has performed for 19 consecutive seasons to sold-out houses, and "they attract a cross-over audience, with some regular dance-goers but also a lot of people who don't regularly attend dance performances," says Martin Wechsler, the theater's director of programming. "I think they've helped introduce a lot of people to dance."

Moving forward

Both Wolken and Barnett feel their durability also has a lot to do with continued adherence to core "Pilobolean" principles. "Every dance we've ever made has developed out of material that arises through free play," Barnett says. "We operate from the power of ignorance, from quick decision-making, from the Darwinian winnowing of the weak idea. We've spent a long time learning how to get thoughtful adults to play together productively."

"What's unique about Pilobolus is that they're always working from this place of fun," says Pollak, who's based in Tel Aviv. "It's not just a state of physicality with them but a state of mind. They haven't lost their willingness to invent, and I think this is what keeps them going."

So does the idea that the organization called Pilobolus will outlive both the individuals who created it and their oeuvre of more than 100 dances. "While we've done dances we're proud of and dances that have been stinkers, it's our organization that is our most original creation," Barnett says.

Observing that "our legacy remains a work in progress," Wolken seems to still be describing the company as a whole when he switches into speaking about himself. "I may not be as young as I was, but I still feel juiced. Still crazy after all these years, I suppose . . . a different crazy maybe, but still crazy."

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