In 1971, a group of athletes with no prior dance experience launched the now-acclaimed modern dance company Pilobolus on the grassy, manicured fields of Dartmouth College. Inspired by a single class taught by dancer Alison Chase (who, a few years later, became one of Pilobolus' members along with Robby Barnett, Martha Clarke, Lee Harris, Moses Pendleton, Michael Tracy and Jonathan Wolken), the group began freeform experimentation with acrobatics, contortion and modern dance. From the outset, the group aimed to push through the body's perceived limits in form, balance and movement. What began as playful collaboration grew to be one of the most influential dance companies in the world.
"We were an organism in a bubble that didn't know what kind of sensors it had, that didn't know what its final mission would be," says Tracy in Still Moving: Pilobolus at Forty, a 2011 documentary tribute to the company by Dartmouth professor Jeffrey Ruoff. "We didn't know what our viability would be, if we'd survive for a year or 40 years."
Ruoff's documentary interviews several of Pilobolus' founding members, and follows the current members of the company through rehearsals and a 40th anniversary performance at Dartmouth. Archival footage of the company's early work is woven throughout; when Wolken passed away during filming, Ruoff was there to capture the grieving. What audiences of Ruoff's film won't see are the deeper cracks: namely, the personality disputes that occasionally led to ruptures in the company, and the circumstance of Chase's 2006 departure. Still Moving is unabashedly a tribute.
The 40-minute film will be screened on Thursday, May 1, at Main Street Landing in Burlington to benefit Awareness Theater, a local performance company that includes members with disabilities. A discussion with the filmmakers and Vermont International Film executive director Orly Yadin follows the screening. The following day, May 2, Pilobolus performs at the Flynn MainStage.
Now in its 43rd year, Pilobolus continues to earn praise for its signature mix of "dance-athletics," which was critically acclaimed from the start: At its first New York performance in 1971, the New York Times wrote that Pilobolus dancers "displayed amazing physical fearlessness, humor, inventiveness and unselfconsciousness." When the troupe made its 1977 Broadway debut, the New Yorker called its members "six of the most extraordinary people now performing."
Pilobolus' dancers and choreographers — many members of the company did both — also branched into slapstick physical comedy and mime, incorporating performance styles into their pieces that were unconventional even by the fluid standards of modern dance. The company also enthusiastically utilized experimental lighting and sound. Its dancers continue to choreograph an average of two additional pieces per year, producing a repertory of more than 100 pieces.
Critics have routinely noted that Pilobolus performances defied characterization, a phenomenon the company's founding members chalk up to their inexperienced roots.
"We didn't really know what dance was, so there was no ideal form we were trying to approach," notes Barnett in the film. "...I don't think we know anything about modern dance. I mean, we call ourselves a modern dance company for want of anything better."
Yet some patterns inevitably emerged. Pilobolus' imagery is frequently inspired by biology, from bare-breasted women to molecular cells; performing in the nude is commonplace; and compositions often rely heavily on pairs and group compositions, with bodies writhing and intertwining to create breathtaking tableaux, in which it's often difficult to identify which limb belongs to which dancer. In Still Moving, Pilobolus members maintain that even those signatures evolved organically: their style of partnering, for example, kept cropping up because their inexperienced founding members couldn't bear to be onstage solo.
Famously — and, it seemed, incongruously — the young dancers named their troupe for a phototropic fungus that thrives in feces and "propels its spores with extraordinary speed, accuracy and strength," as the company's website puts it. But as Ruoff aptly shows in Still Moving, using footage of microscopic pilobolus spores wriggling determinedly toward the light, there's a quality to a Pilobolus dance that jives with that name. There's something innately biological about Pilobolus' style — something innately alive, though perhaps not entirely human.
In many ways, Pilobolus the company has stayed true to its roots. The heart of the organization remains a tight-knit company of "dancer-athletes" and composers, who have mostly kept the composition of the original company intact over the years: four male bodies, two female. (As the film demonstrates, any outgoing member of the company diligently trains a replacement to keep the knowledge of the company's older pieces alive.)
Though the company travels frequently, Pilobolus' home base remains in Washington Depot, a rural town in Litchfield County, Conn., where its founding members moved after their college years. They lived in a creative, collaborative environment "essentially as a kind of collective," says Itamar Kubovy, who became Pilobolus' first executive director in 2004, in the film. "Except instead of living on an organic farm, they made dances."
It has also branched into educational programs in schools, hospitals, youth centers and more. Workshops are taught by company members who use Pilobolus' collaborative choreography process to create movement pieces with untrained dancers — as were the company's founders who, 40 years later in Still Moving, still appear to be driven by little more than the adrenaline spike of norms-defying movement, and a desire to keep living in the "bubble" they made for themselves through dance.
As founding member Wolken told the Monterey County Herald in 2009, a year before his death, "We created a circus and then ran off and joined it."