How many human bodies does it take to make an elephant? For a team of Pilobolus dancers, the answer — five — lies within their collective improvisation.
At 8 p.m. on May 17 through 19, Pilobolus will perform a mixed repertory at the Irvine Barclay Theatre as part of the venue's contemporary dance series.
To date, Pilobolus has produced more than 100 choreographic works. The troupe's Barclay program will consist of five pieces that span 11 years: "Gnomen" (1997), "All Is Not Lost" (2011), "Megawatt" (2004), Sweet Purgatory (1991) and Duet (1992).
"All is Not Lost" is the live companion to Pilobolus' video collaboration with the Grammy-winning band OK Go. Together, the team earned a nomination for a Best Short Form Music Video Grammy Award in 2012.
The piece was choreographed by associate artistic director Renee Jaworski, who began performing with Pilobolus in 2000.
"We decided it was pretty much the way we made the video and we wanted to show people that," Jaworski said in a phone interview. "So, what you are seeing on the stage is a behind-the-scenes look at our video."
Known for its dynamic imagination and innovative movement, Pilobolus showcases the strength and agility of the human form.
"We put bodies together to make something of a whole," Jaworski. "Pilobolus has always stacked bodies on each other to create a new being. I like to describe it as drawing with shadow."
Pilobolus is a sun-loving fungus that grows on dung in barnyards and pastures.
"[Pilobolus] leans toward the light in a same way that we kind of search out ideas," Jaworski said. "We're not exactly conventional. So, in a crude way, we have to desire to live in [feces] so we can come up with good stuff."
Pilobolus was started by four guys in Alison Chase's modern dance class at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
Moses Pendleton, Jonathan Wolken, Steve Johnson and Lee Harris were not interested in learning plies and technical dance, so Chase encouraged them to explore movements they were naturally inclined to do.
What emerged from their experimentation was a unique weight-sharing approach to partnering and a collaborative choreographic process that defines the way the company is run today.
For current artistic directors Robby Barnet and Michael Tracy, the mantra is simple: Give the dancers as few directions as possible.
"The visions, I don't think come as visions as much as experiments. So, it comes out of experience," Jaworski said of the choreographic process.
"Sometimes we'll come in with an idea, like we have some music that we want to work with, or we have a story that we want to tell. But mainly, we just start moving. We put two, three or four people together and we just ask them to start moving.
"When something strikes a chord emotionally or physically, we say do it again. OK, now, do it this way. OK, now do it on top of somebody!"
But, it's not as easy as it sounds. Many Pilobolus dancers pull from their athletic backgrounds, as well as from experience in modern dance, ballet, karate and theater.
Since its founding in 1971, the Connecticut-based company has continued to grow, expanding and refining its unusual collaborative methods.
Over the years, Pilobolus has collaborated with the likes of Mobil, Ford, Toyota, Hyundai and IBM. The company has appeared on "60 Minutes," the "Oprah Winfrey Show," the "Conan O'Brien" show, and on the NFL Network.
In 1997, Pilobolus won a Primetime Emmy Award for outstanding achievement in cultural programming. And in 2007, the company created and presented six acclaimed performances during the 79th annual Academy Awards.
Pilobolus works appear in the repertories of major dance companies: the Joffrey, Feld, Ohio, Arizona, and Aspen/Santa Fe Ballets in the United States, the Ballet National de Nancy et de Lorraine and the Ballet du Rhin in France, and Italy's Verona Ballet.
"I think that the fact that you can come to a Pilobolus show and walk away saying that through the whole two-hour performance you didn't see one pirouette or one recognizable move is important to state," Jaworski said. "We are not making our pieces out of movement that's already been seen and done. Most of the movement is movement you would see somewhere every day.
"We just put it together in a way that's very interesting."
If You Go
What: "Mixed Repertory"
When: 8 p.m. May 17 through 19
Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine
Cost: Tickets range from $32 to $45
More information: http://www.thebarclay.org.