Monday, July 12, 2010

Slicing and Dicing the Famous Fungus

(uncredited photo of Pilobolus from Carolina Performing Arts site)

On the first day of the Critic’s Conference at the American Dance Festival I confessed that in the past I wouldn’t see Pilobolus even if you paid me. At Bennington College in the early 70's I saw the original Pils in a demo that was intriguing - the group's DNA was well in place and they were running on youthful excitement and invention. As they've gone along, the crowd-pleasing, go-for-laughs obviousness of the work became a turn-off for me in the same way that I don't choose to put on easy listening tracks.

Seeing them this July at ADF and coming from a place of such low expectations, the group’s show in the humongous new Durham Performing Arts Center was a surprise - more appealing than I anticipated.

I loved the interaction of Art Spiegelman's comics with live characters in the new Hapless Hooligan in "Still Moving." I enjoyed the circumscribed movement terrains in two of the pieces - one all sailing lifts, often in slow mo (Gnomen), and another all jittery electroshock tremors with hip hop (Megawatt). They sure know how to put on a show.

We wrote about it in little bits. Tedd Bale put us through a series of exercises, taking two minutes to write in each of four styles:

Descriptive: A rocking chair center stage and plucky down-home melodies set a southern mountain feel. Innocuous exchanges in a bubbling cast leave little imprint.

Emotive: The changes of scale in shadow play – hunkering man grows huge by moving toward light source – elicit a childlike fascination. But the violence causes this viewer to recoil – it’s crass stuff, and far from nursery rhymes.

Normative: Nearly forty years on, the group, begun by four Dartmouth undergrads then unschooled in the niceties of dance, is now immensely popular, capitalizing on its most successful formulas to keep’em coming.

Performative: Here’s the Pilobolus recipe – take strong young men and women, get them devising ways to lift, climb over and grapple with each other in multiple group permutations. Change speeds, stories and soundtracks. Go for the gags.

Of course the audience stood up and cheered.

In a morning session later on, John Jasperse brought up a question regarding the effect all this has on the audience’s ability to look at more challenging dance. Some say that pleasing the crowd with an easily accessible group creates more potential dance-goers, but John’s feeling is that if your sense of what dance is is defined by Pilobolus, you are not going to enjoy his work. He feels that the presenters’ strategy of bringing in the Pils because they are so popular just reinforces a situation where audiences want spoon feeding rather than a deeper engagement.

What do you think?