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Innovative Pilobolus dancers incorporate artistic design


In an effort to connect with each other, Pilobolus dancers pile on top of one another, transforming themselves into a human sculpture before moving as one, huge clump. Or they lift a fellow dancer off the floor before flinging him across the room.

Such choreography -- the trademark of Pilobolus Dance Theatre -- will be presented at the Columbia Festival of the Arts in two sold-out performances tonight and tomorrow at the auditorium of Wilde Lake High School at River Hill in Clarksville.

Because of the innovative dance company's reputation for originality and fun, all 1,460 tickets to both performances sold out more than two weeks ago. But a free lecture demonstration explaining the company's creative process will be presented at 2 p.m. today at Wilde Lake High.

Festival organizers booked Pilobolus, which first performed at the festival in 1990, because of popular demand.

"Pilobolus is probably the most popular company because they're so good and have top-notch dancers," said Lynne Nemeth, the festival's managing director. "Ever since they were here five years ago, people said, 'When will you bring them back?'

"They're athletic, witty and funny. Their work is fascinating and they have been around a long time so they have been able to establish themselves."

For this weekend's performances, Pilobolus will present five dances six to 10 minutes long -- from comic solos to serious, full-company productions.

"We present a blend: a little old Pilobolus and a little new, something funny, something dark," said artistic director Robby Barnett.

The Connecticut-based troupe -- which shares its name with a fungus -- has four artistic directors and six dancers. The company uses creativity, athletics and a sense of humor to forge its distinctive approach to modern dance. It breaks the rules because its founders never really knew the rules.

Moses Pendleton (who left in 1981 to form Momix dance company), Jonathan Wolken and Steve Johnson formed Pilobolus in 1971 after they met at a dance class at Dartmouth College. None of the three was a dancer.

"We just happened to take a dance class -- we had no formal training," said Mr. Barnett, who was an art student at Dartmouth when he joined Pilobolus later that year.

When their instructor, Alison Chase, who joined Pilobolus as an artistic director in 1973, asked her students to create a dance movement, they created a piece they called "Pilobolus."

The four former high-school athletes -- the original three plus Mr. Barnett -- banded together with a few others for their class assignments. Their collaborators included Michael Tracy, who joined Pilobolus as an artistic director in 1974.

"We collaborated and made decisions as a group," said Mr. Barnett, 45. "Originally, we grabbed each other for moral and physical support. We wouldn't get out there by ourselves, so we clung to each other and figured out how to move while we connected to each other. We figured out how to move together while combining our bodies."

Those classroom coping strategies eventually became the driving force behind Pilobolus.

All dance pieces are developed through a collaborative process, something unusual in a business where it's typical for only one choreographer to dictate the shape a movement will take.

"We trade egos for ideas," Mr. Barnett said. "In the end, it doesn't matter where the piece comes from. The only issue is if the work of art has any resonant power."

Pilobolus also avoids the pitfalls of using choreography as a means of making a statement, a device that often has pushed creativity into the shadows and dance companies out of business.

"Rare to never do we say something," Mr. Barnett said. "We don't want to say something political and then figure out what we want to do.

"Pilobolus divides itself between physical and psychological concerns. Our pieces tend to be acts of self-analysis. It's how we express ourselves. We want to discover what we have expressed. There is an aesthetic philosophy to what we do," Mr. Barnett said.

"Our prime interest is in groups of people working together, moving together. Our attempt at self-expression has allowed us as a group -- weather-beaten and battle worn -- to be one of the unrepentant survivors of small, touring modern dance companies. We're a mangy, lingering survivor of the arts war," he said.

Originally based in New Hampshire, the company moved in 1975 to Washington Depot, Conn., where most of its members now live.

"Our essential energy comes from the rural environment -- mountains, lakes. I can't imagine drawing sustenance from the urban environment," said Mr. Barnett, adding that he considers Columbia too urban.

The award-winning company performs about 100 concerts a year worldwide. Over the last 20 years, it has appeared on Broadway, the "Tonight Show With Johnny Carson" and "Sesame Street," and in television commercials.

In 1990, the company started the Pilobolus Institute, an educational outreach program that uses choreography for all its programming except those designed for children.

"We are privileged to excite interest in choreography, rather than dance training as most arts schools do," Mr. Barnett said. "Our belief is to suggest to people they could be choreographers and express dance that could be creative and self-fulfilling."

This week, the Pilobolus Institute offered five workshops at Wilde Lake High School for beginners, dancers at advanced levels and choreographers. About 125 students from age 15 to 60 signed up.

At the final session for the advanced class, Mr. Barnett guided students in developing movements into one piece.

"He helped us shape it," said Prudence Barry, a 62-year-old film and theater actress from Columbia who studies movement.

"What I liked the most was when he said to give it a way to start, proceed and end," Ms. Barry said. "That's what made it satisfying expressively."

Professional dancer Amie Morrow Bell, 30, of Baltimore County found that the collaborative process energized her performance.

"The main thing I got was a renewed sense of how to be creative, coming out with your own movement and expressing yourself," she said, "as opposed to being a robotic, technical dancer."


The seventh annual Columbia Festival of the Arts wraps up this weekend, highlighted by jazz performances by Diane Schuur tomorrow night and the George Shearing Duo Sunday night.

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