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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 12, 2000. All rights reserved.

Pilobolus’ Organic Brew


There may be some who remember a time when pilobolus

was a tiny, sun-loving fungus growing in barnyards and pastures —

but not many. To audiences around the globe, Pilobolus is best known

as an equally feisty dance organism, an imaginative ensemble currently

in its 29th performing year.

Pilobolus makes its biennial return to Princeton with performances

Tuesday and Wednesday, April 18 and 19. Given the company’s long-lived

propensity for nudity, the program of April 19 is billed as a family

show, well-suited for young people ages 14 and up. Prior to its


appearances, Pilobolus is at NJPAC’s Victoria Theater, Friday through

Sunday, April 14 through 16. The company, based in rural northwestern

Connecticut, is on a tour that takes it across the U.S., as well as

to performances in France, Italy, Poland, Mexico, and Bermuda.

The hardy Pilobolus sprang from Dartmouth College in 1970. That was

the year Alison Becker Chase began teaching dance at the then-all-male

Ivy League school. Her students included Moses Pendleton and Jonathan

Wolken, soon to be joined by Robby Barnett and Lee Harris. Co-founder

Jonathan Wolken became acquainted with the fungus pilobolus (which

was the name given to his 1971 debut dance), while researching its

photoreceptor mechanism in his father’s biophysics lab. Wolken


from Dartmouth with a degree in philosophy; Barnett graduated in 1972

with a major in studio art.

The choice of an organic name was no bluff. From the first awkward

moves of untrained guys in a dance class, Pilobolus’ dances were

and continue to be the product of organic processes and group


The work relies on sustained body contact, weight, and leverage, with

a perennial touch of whimsy. Dances were, and continue to be, made

collaboratively during intense periods of improvisation and creative

play. Company creations range from gymnastic-like arrangements of

interlocking bodies to fantastical, surreal, quasi-narratives inspired

by literary works.

Like the original little pilobolus fungus that can throw its spores

nearly eight feet ("right over a cow"), the original Pilobolus

members and alumni have spawned a bevy of well-regarded companies.

Momix, led by Moses Pendleton, and Crowsnest, led by Martha Clarke,

are among them. In 1997 Pilobolus founded its own Pilobolus Too, a

touring program of solos and duets suitable for performance in


rural venues.

And in an unlikely nod to relational longevity, four founders and

early members — Robby Barnett, Alison Chase, Michael Tracy, and

Jonathan Wolken — continue to choreograph and provide artistic

direction to the company today. Its repertory now numbers some 70

works, 20 of which are sustained in active repertory. A company of

six younger dancers perform and help create Pilobolus works.

Pilobolus’ performing component is constantly being

renewed. The current company member of longest standing is Rebecca

Anderson, dancer and dance captain who joined in 1994. The company’s

only other female dancer is Josie Coyoc, who joined Pilobolus in 1998

after five years as a member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance

Company. The featured men are Matt Kent, Gaspard Louis (a dance


of Montclair State), Benjamin Pring (an NYU graduate who is also a

violinist), and the company’s newest member, Otis Cook.

If the company of dancers is fresh and new, so is the Princeton


With one exception, every work that will be performed at McCarter

is newly-minted in 1998, 1999, and even 2000. The only vintage work

on the program is the well-known and well-loved "Day Two"

of 1980 (on Wednesday’s program), directed by Moses Pendleton and

set to music by Brian Eno, David Byrne, and the Talking Heads.

In a telephone interview from the company offices in rural


Robby Barnett explains that the reason Princeton has become a special

destination and a forum for sharing its newest works is by no means


Barnett’s roots in Princeton are deep. His father was a Princeton

University graduate and his mother a native of the town. While Barnett

was born and raised in the Adirondacks, the family made regular visits

to Princeton to visit friends and family that included cousins


and "Jinx" Harbison (the latter, father of composer John


both then members of the Princeton faculty.

"My mom was a mom," explains Barnett. His father, Lincoln

Barnett, is still remembered as the author of "The Universe and

Dr. Einstein," the first — and still considered by many the

best — popular explication of Einstein’s theory of relativity,

published in 1950. Originally a reporter for the Herald Tribune,


Barnett became a war correspondent, writer, and editor for Life


During the ’50s, he wrote for the new Time-Life books series,


"The World We Live In" and "The Epic of Man," among


Barnett’s ties to the community endure through his long friendship

with Princeton architect and painter Ronald Berlin, who designed the

house where he and his wife and two children live.

Woven into Barnett’s unique Princeton family ties was a seminal


in the early 1970s, with Princeton’s Pre-Columbian art specialist,

Gillett Griffin. Barnett and Clarke were interested in Central and

South American music when his faculty cousins, the Harbisons,


him to the maverick scholar Griffin. The meeting was so successful

that Barnett and Clarke commissioned a music score from Peter


that he performed on a Mayan flute from Griffin’s collection. The

company has returned to Princeton every two years for the past 12

years and always spends time with Griffin.

"We do everything we can to try to keep our dancers interested

in and open to the visual world," says Barnett. "Gillett


gives our dancers the opportunity to hold a Mayan pot or drink sherry

out of a Greek krater. Gillett is so filled with joy and the beauty

of art that it’s infectious."

Griffin’s collection is populated by clay figures formed by


craftspeople from the Olmec of the second millennia B.C. to the Aztec

empire of the 16th century A.D. Also represented are the instruments

they played, from the elaborately decorated one-note whistles that

were used to summon the spirits of ancestors, to slit drums, ceramic

bells and rattles.

"We basically encourage our dancers to be open to much as they

possibly can," says Barnett. "Our view has always been that

there’s no anticipating what is going to connect with what part of

your life, so you want to store as much as you can. In that way, those

impressions will be there to be drawn upon, to make the mysterious

connections that are at the base of what we do."

What Pilobolus does, and has done for close to three decades, is more

collaborative that most dance companies — formed under the banner

esthetic of a single creative individual — in existence today.

"Our process hasn’t changed over time," says Barnett. "We

enter the studio mute and thoughtless and go in each time with an

open mind waiting to see what will come out. We do three pieces a

year and we accumulate repertory pretty fast."

One of the new works featured on the Princeton program is "A


a 1999 work commissioned by the American Dance Festival, and dedicated

to Italian author and philosopher Primo Levi (1919-1987). "A


was initiated as a collaboration with Maurice Sendak and Arthur


Sendak’s partner in the production company the Night Kitchen, by


Barnett, Tracy, and Wolken and the Pilobolus dancers.

"`A Selection’ began as a work of a mutual interest and


says Barnett. "We saw it as an opportunity to work with a great

storyteller who shared our interest in how movement can be used for

narrative. We felt we were kindred spirits."

Barnett explains that his group also recognized in


a shared interest in ambiguity and pushing the limits to which the

public will share its love of ambiguity. "We’ve always found what

is left out the most interesting part of storytelling," he says.

Sendak and Yorinks brought to the project the music of Hans Krasa

and Pavel Haas. Krasa and Haas were highly regarded young composers

when, in 1938, their work was condemned by the Nazis as


The two were interned in 1941, first in the Teresienstadt, a


camp at Terezin, Czechoslovakia, used as a front for Nazi


propaganda, where they continued, with difficulty, to compose. They

were later deported to Auschwitz.

Barnett says that the collaborative work that resulted was shaped

by a response both to the music and the lives of its composers.

"We ended up with a story," says Barnett. "The piece is

couched in terms of Holocaust imagery. On the one hand it’s the story

of any small group under stress. It was not our intention to do a

piece based on murder, but it was enough for us to have felt we had

done something that was a genuine exploration of a group, a family,

a company. These two composers went to their death in Auschwitz on

the same day in October, 1944."

"I think Pilobolus has a tendency, on a deep metaphorical level,

to deal with ourselves," he continues. "We’re a group of


who have sustained many ups and downs over time. Most of our work

at some level explores the relationship between the individual and

the group; to what extent one can maintain an individual voice in

a group context.

"We have our tale, but we don’t believe the stories we tell


are more genuine than the stories of others."

The other new works on the Princeton program all feature music by

Paul Sullivan, each piece commissioned after the choreography was


"We wear our music like a cape and drape it over our choreography,

rather than fit our work like a glove into the music. We prefer to

follow through choreographic thinking that pleases us and then find

music that fits."

The company’s unorthodox, collaborative processes, which has been

the source of much interest, led to the creation, in 1991, of the

Pilobolus Institute, an educational outreach program that uses the

art of choreography as a model for creative thinking in any field.

"We’ve been evolving the idea of leadership workshops over time.

We have done some work with corporate clients such as workshops for

America Online and MNBC, the credit card company. The Pilobolus


is primarily concerned with dance education. Our mission is to


the art of choreography. We don’t teach technique. We’re interested

in fostering the idea that choreography is a primary art form. We

want to encourage schools to teach choreography, not dance classes.

And it’s an effort to develop young audiences for dance and to try

to foment new ideas for dance."

— Nicole Plett

Pilobolus Dance Theater, McCarter Theater, 91

University Place, 609-258-2787. The April 19 show is for ages 14 and up. $29

& $32. Tuesday & Wednesday, April 18 & 19, 8 p.m.

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