It’s really unfair to call Pilobolus a "dance company." it’s so...limiting. I’d prefer a new description. "Kinetic energy forms," maybe; or "movement beyond movement."
For over 40 years, this hugely popular dance troupe (can’t think of another company that rates a five-week season at the hard-to-book Joyce) has made it its mission to break down the "vocabulary" that informs -- and restricts -- dance, whether it be the classical kind practiced Uptown at Lincoln Center or the "our rules are no rules" Downtown aesthetic of modern companies.
The two films that act as entr’acte filler vividly demonstrate Pilobolus’ approach to movement-to-music. In the one, we see creatures, from flocks of birds to microorganisms, moving through nature, as well as traffic patterns and other man-made and animal geometric forms.
In the other, which is a hell of a lot of fun to watch, we see various "experiments" that wouldn’t be out of place in a Johnny Knoxville production: A man bats a raw egg. An electric hacksaw severs a Coca-Cola can. A lawn mower moves through a shag rug.
These films give some indication of the yin-yang of creation/destruction (and creation out of destruction) that is at the heart of this very profound company’s experiments in dance. As the name implies (it’s a fungus), Pilobolus considers itself very grounded in the natural patterns that occur regularly in nature.
But the company also is very much engaged in exploding those patterns, or at least toying with them. That extends to space itself, which Pilobolus sees as a Kantian construct of something we’ve imposed on the great Out There and that can toyed with as easily as the human body, which, in this six-person company, goes through some very punishing regimens.
At the current run at the Joyce, there are two programs, each with its own special virtues. I’ll review both as they appear.
Let me confess right off that, despite some great numbers in Program B, I definitely give the edge to Program A.
It starts with "Automaton," an elegiac work set partly in a movable hall of mirrors. The dancers perform with their usual breathtaking physical intensity, and the piece is moving. The robot-like moves are good enough to have given Michael Jackson pause and give the work an eerie "Blade Runner" feel. Are these dancers human or automatons? Like that film and "A.I.," it seems to ask whether there is a difference.
The second number is -- there’s simply no way to play it down -- a total mind blower. Several couples -- other-sexed, same-sexed, intersexed -- glide across the stage dancing the tango, with appropriate Buenos Aires street scenes.
Nothing extraordinary here. Ah, but there’s a hook, as they say in show biz, and here it’s a doozy. The dancers never appear for more than a few seconds on stage. And each time, each member of the pair is wearing an entirely different outfit. After a while, they change onstage while never missing a beat. They interchange their clothes.
If it’s more vaudeville than High Art, it’s great fun, and a real tribute to the gaggle of costumers who contributed. The only problem with the piece is that the actual dancing is not as good as the middle-class couples, old men, civil servants and boys and girls I saw practicing their art in a Downtown Buenos Aires tango palace.
This is one of those programs that truly saves up its fireworks for last. The second-to-last piece, "Duet," features two women. Same-sex coupling has become a cliche on the Downtown scene at least since Paul Taylor introduced it in his "Company B."
But although we’ve often seen two men in various states of erotic embrace, "Duet" is the first time I’ve ever seen two women so hot to trot on a New York state that didn’t have a pole in the middle. In a word, the women and the moves are hot!
Nothing, however, prepares for the finale, the appropriately named "Megawatt." This is quintessential Pilobolus. When the stagehands cover the floor with rubber matting, we know we’re in for some heavy-duty moves. But nothing prepared me for the flying leaps, the mid-air balances, the one-handed back somersault flips.
All of this would be just an even-more death-defying version of a circus troupe like Cirque du Soleil (given, without the mawkish New Age overtones). But the precise coordination to the score (here, a propulsive mix of Primus, Radiohead and Squarepusher) elevates it to Art.
At the end of the piece, the usually "been there, done that" crowd at the Joyce was on its feet while whopping and hollering out "Bravos." When the cool Downtown dance crowd lets pure enthusiasm take over, you know something special has happened.
The program that alternates through the Joyce residency begins with a number that uses some interesting props: curved quarter-circule steel rods and balls seemingly suspended in space. It’s probably a sin to read any narrative into Pilobolus’ work, since the underlying philosophy is the way nature (and man, when he’s acting according to his nature in intercessions with other men) produces patterns that are beautiful but random.
Still, the images gave the effect of demiurges, those proto-Greek gods who put the universe in order; or, alternatively (and more sinisterly), William Blake’s famous cartoon of Sir Isaac Newton as a demonic figure regulating and thus demystifying the heavenly bodies.
Some of the moves resembled cross-country skiing, and the random juggling and other ball movements wore out their welcome a little early. Still, it was a beautiful piece. In an age where we’re finding the underlying structure of the universe, it’s not out of place to picture Man as the real demiurge. Higgs boson, after all, is named after a person.
"Pseudopodia" is another wonderfully typical Pilobolus piece that incorporates the movements of insects. Only here there’s only one performer, the very hard working Jn Kuribayashi, who appears in every single piece on both programs. By the end of two evenings, I was in awe of his stamina, ability to withstand such punishment and back-bending moves (a specialty: moving down to the floor, into a yogic wheel, and then just as gracefully getting back up again). And all with astonishing physical grace.
The most entertaining piece of the B program by far is "All Is Not Lost," a relatively new piece in which the dancers perform on a sort-of jungle gym on one side of the stage while two tiny cameras perched below them show their movements and facial gestures on a giant screen a few feet away.
It’s great fun, and the dancers demonstrate their ability to mug while performing tasks that would have the rest of groaning. It’s typical Pilobolus: making the impossible look fun.
The evening’s last piece, "Sweet Purgatory," was a little too much like its namesake: a place where shades spend their time waiting to be elevated to the next plane. While the dancing was among the most gorgeous and elegant of either program, the music -- a chamber symphony by the Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich -- dragged. Although I’m glad Pilobolus doesn’t limit itself to the electronica that has pretty much taken over Downtown dance companies, an adagio symphony does not jive with this company’s energy.
Still, it was Pilobolus, so it was amazing. If you have never experienced this dance troupe, I guess you could watch a few YouTube videos, although the ones I’ve seen have shown only a tiny fraction of the action that takes place on the expansive Joyce stage.
If you’re afraid that dance is something too high-brow for you, Pilobolus is the perfect way to be introduced to the sheer joy of movement for its own sake. If you’re a dance snob and don’t believe that insects and cars angling into the Lincoln Tunnel aren’t a form of dance...well, I just feel sorry for you.
Pilobolus runs their current program through August 11 at the Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue. For info or tickets, call 212-242-0800, or visit the theater’s website.