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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
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
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.
Corrections or additions?
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