Cover Story: The Guides for Art

Pilobolus offers modern movement for a modern world

Feb 20, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Sean Hughes

Commercial contemporary dance might sound like an oxymoron, but if any group has flirted with pop culture outside the dance world's traditional pathways it's Pilobolus.

You might have noticed their silhouetted acrobatic antics at the Academy Awards in February 2007 — bodies collectively morphing together to form representative symbols from films. Maybe you caught their Hyundai car ad on TV, where they take the shape of, yes, a car.

In many ways Pilobolus — appearing this week at the Aronoff Center's Jarson-Kaplan Theater as part of Contemporary Dance Theater's Guest Artist Series — shoots its spores far from what's expected from a modern dance company. Or is it even technically modern dance?

However you describe it, Pilobolus — named for a phototropic zygomycete, a sun-loving fungus — is decidedly modern in its outlook. Their innovative performance and educational outreach have helped increase awareness of movement's broader potential.

According to Robby Barnett, one of three founding members/artistic directors, the troupe's basic belief is to say "yes" to opportunities, be they corporate team-building workshops, books, TV commercials, opera or even Off-Broadway theater. They can adapt and diversify, just like a successful organism.

Speaking by phone from Pilobolus' Washington Depot, Conn., headquarters, Barnett says he just returned from northern Vermont, where he spent two days skiing and mountain climbing.

I ask if skiing and dancing tend to work in opposition, muscle-wise and risk-wise.

"Well, I'm sure I probably never had dance muscles anyway," Barnett says.

Maybe he's being modest, and maybe it's true.

Pilobolus was born in a dance class at Dartmouth College in 1971. Three men were founders, and all three remain artistic directors. But Barnett says that back then they didn't know what dance was, so they began forging their own way, creating forms inspired by their interest in visual culture with an emphasis on images and forms, not mere moves.

Working together, they wanted to marry art and life. They remain true to this ethos today.

"We are certainly a group of individuals, but I think powerfully more than that — than any one of the dances we've managed to make over the years — is a little arts organism that has a personality, has style," Barnett says. "It's got a culture. It's got life, and we're interested in the nurturing of this thing. It's like you traded your cow for a seed and you don't know what the hell the seed is and you put it in the ground and it grows like crazy. We're still climbing our beanstalk trying to see what's there."

Running and jumping
I noticed an audition announcement on Pilobolus' Web site.

"Well, first we're looking for athletes," Barnett says of the attributes the artistic directors seek. "We ask people to run and jump, and that usually is enough to eliminate about 95 percent of the people we see. (Then) we spend an awful lot of time doing improvisation. We're looking for depth of imagination.

"Almost everybody has a bottom. Sometimes it's a hard bottom, sometimes there's a soft bottom, but if you ask them to do three-second improvisations for two days, eventually they begin to repeat themselves. And you get a good sense of people's resilience and profundity in that process."

After they narrow the field — and it is a narrow one of only seven full-time dancers in the touring company — Barnett and his co-directors try some repertory work to test partnering skills. Look at any Pilobolus photo, and you'll see why this is an essential skill: Their dances comprise endless and often mind-bending weight-bearing and -sharing variations.

Unlike most dance companies, it's not all about technique and steps. Fertile imagination becomes the stronger currency.

Those who read interesting material and have a sense of humor and an ability to speak articulately about themselves and the world are also desirable, Barnett says.

Speaking by phone from a tour stop in Princeton, N.J., Andy Herro, a Pilobolus dancer since 2003, comments on the grueling audition experience.

"There's really no real way to prepare for a Pilobolus audition," he says. "You go in there and you just play around and try to show them what you have. And from just a 30-second audition there could be a cut.

"After you have like three or four of the auditions, your body is just so sore you just can't move. All day long just moving, and you're trying to chill off and you're trying to get every move perfectly and you discover muscles that you never knew you had."

Herro says Pilobolus is the only company he's worked for — it was his first audition after college, where he was a theater major. He didn't start dancing until he got to college, and in high school he wrestled and played football and tennis.

Clearly Pilobolus values diverse backgrounds.

"(We attract) people who have lots of outside interests," Barnett says. "because we really don't dance about dance, we generally are dancing about life and we like people who are filled with it and involved with it. In three days you have a chance to maybe scratch the surface, and then you blink and pull the trigger and hope that you've picked well. Over the years we've been pretty good about finding people who do the work well, who are well adapted for our particular and rather small family."

The company has 37 seasons' worth of repertory and strives to create a trio of new works each year. So the dancers have to learn a lot of material — and fast.

As for other "cross-training," I'm surprised to learn the dancers don't do any. After all, they possess astounding muscle tone, strength and agility.

"You know, all they do is the work," Barnett says. "Yeah, there's lots of it and it's diverse and it's really all they have time for. Occasionally somebody might do some yoga."

Dance company Darwinism
Pilobolus evolves with the times. They still tour worldwide to great acclaim and remain quite popular for a contemporary dance organization. How do they balance creative risk-taking with the need to sell tickets?

"Well, I think that risk-taking is just built into the arts," Barnett says. "I mean, people think that they do commercial work, but the fact is, if it was possible to really figure out what people wanted, there would be more rich people in the arts today. I don't think that's possible really."

Barnett believes luck has played a greater role in Pilobolus' popularity than any particular insight about what audiences want.

"I think that we've been lucky to discover as the years have gone on that what we think is funny other people often think is funny," he says, "and what we find mysterious other people do, too. Our process is really finding something we don't understand and then grabbing the end of that little thread and pulling on it, seeing what we can find. I don't know if we're unraveling something on the other end or merely just wandering around following the string, but the fact is we follow threads of inquiry."

Herro says of their creation process, "The way we create new pieces is it's all through collaboration and improvisation. When the dancers come into the company, they have a voice in creating the new works, and I think that's one of the unique ways in which the company has survived for 37 years because they can draw from the dancers that come into the company.

"Everyone brings new ideas, and with these new ideas everyone kind of plays together to come up with the new pieces. You don't come into the studio and have a director tell you exactly what to do and how to dance and how to move. It's a group effort to create."

Barnett calls it "kind of a Darwinian process, you know: People who don't sell tickets, eventually their organizations fail, and we're here only because we've been lucky in that regard. There's no guarantee that people are gonna like what you like.

"We do plenty of pieces that we love that people don't like and we've done a few things that we don't particularly have much interest in that people seem to like a lot. So the registration between what we like and what other people like is probably better than most, but by no means infallible."

I mention I'd heard a rumor that Pilobolus receives no public funding.

"Good Lord!" Barnett exclaims. "As every nonprofit does, we spend an extraordinary amount of time and money looking for public funding. We have our tin cup out every bit as much as everybody else does, and we receive a lot of public funding that we're very appreciative of."

The corporate work must also come in handy, too. Did Pilobolus' creative services branch come in response to demand or was it more an untapped financial resource?

"Well, it's sort of an act of fund-raising in a way," Barnett says. "I mean, more work is more work. The (pay) scale on a Hyundai commercial is much better that in it is in touring modern dance. Basically we've got a creative opportunities fund, and we have discovered that by actively seeking commercial work we are able to augment our fund-raising opportunities considerably.

"It's like figuring out another way to use our wits to raise money to pay for concert dance, which is not a very high-paying and rather expensive way to express oneself creatively. Unfortunately you need a lot of people standing around all the time to make dances. ... When it's an opportunity to go do some kind of corporate event, we say 'yes' and do our best to put the money to good use."

It seems to have paid off, so to speak, in terms of public awareness.

After all, Academy Awards Producer Laura Ziskin approached Pilobolus about that gig after seeing their Hyundai commercial.

"We'd never really done anything like it," Barnett says of the Academy Awards experience. "We didn't know that we could do it, but it seemed like we were being offered an interesting gig and we tend to say ¨yes' when people ask us if we can do things. We hung up a big sheet in our studio and got a light and tried to do some of these things and we sort of discovered that we could. We got some string and some foam core and some swimming noodles and just started fooling around with shadows."

Ziskin liked what she saw, and away they went.

"The Academy Awards (performance) was really an amazing experience, quite surreal at times," Herro recalls. "Just to be able to walk down the red carpet and be on that stage and look out into that giant theater. We were really focused on making sure to do well and to really represent the company well. ... We've been pretty much sold out everywhere we go since the Academy Awards. It's really fortunate for us as a dance company to be able to have that kind of exposure and to bring that many people to the theater."

I ask if they get flack for what some might see as "selling out." On the contrary, Barnett says he hopes that Pilobolus' corporate work might open doors for other dance organizations to find opportunities in the commercial world.

"We've been getting a lot of encouragement," he says. "I hope it will rub off on our field."

Productive play
Pilobolus the nonprofit organization has three branches: the main touring troupe; Pilobolus Creative Services, encompassing a range of creative commercial projects; and Pilobolus Institute, a broad education and outreach program that Barnett says is expanding rapidly.

"Our educational programming has always really revolved more around imagination," he says. "I mean, we've never taught a dance class, we never took a dance class, we've never given a dance class. What we're doing is trying to put people in a circumstance where they can explore group creativity."

He says the simplest way to describe the approach is a choreographic workshop: putting a group of people in a room and having them make dances together.

"People can use groups to think better, more freely, to use groups as a support as opposed to a hindrance or an impediment to free thought," Barnett says. "To investigate in a sense the components of what a safe place is where people can play productively, because basically we've made a living in productive play. And we certainly don't pretend that every problem can be better solved by a group of people talking simultaneously, but we've discovered that some problems can, and that if you have an inclination, a skill, a talent, that's a resource.

"I think in a rapidly connecting world being able to work effectively in groups is important, so we're interested in that. We also believe in the curative power of art, and we have discovered that we can offer a genuine artistic experience in a fairly compressed period of time. We say it's like going to Tibet in three hours."

Barnett describes how the workshop is a bit like adventure tourism. It involves leading a group of people into unfamiliar or uncharted territory — in this case, movement or dance — and it might be scary to take risks, but it's in a place where they won't be mortally wounded. They have to make the effort to find their way using their wit and courage, he says.

"People come back with a sense of accomplishment, a sense of ability, a sort of discovery that they can do things that they didn't know that they were gonna do," he says. "And it can be life-changing. It's almost always in the long run a pleasurable experience. I mean, climbing a steep mountain can be tough — it's not always pleasant, but it's almost always rewarding. Most people are willing to put up with a certain amount of effort in return for a powerful reward, and we believe we can lead people through a creative experience that is rewarding.

"It's an empowering thing to discover that you haven't left your art in the kindergarten classroom. I mean, every kid's an artist, right? You look at an elementary school wall and it's covered with fantastic painting, and people tend to think they move on to other things or that the abrasion of life builds up callous and our art is somehow left behind. We like to think that art is sort of there waiting for you. You just have to go to it. And we like to be the guide for that."

Like its namesake spore-shooting fungus, the Pilobolus collective flourishes where it can.

Contemporary Dance Theater presents PILOBOLUS at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at the Aronoff Center's Jarson-Kaplan Theater downtown.