at the Civic Theatre

February 19-23


at Link’s Hall

February 21-23

Some bad boys remain bad and turn into graying, paunchy, slightly ridiculous men. Others become dignified and mature: in other words, ordinary human beings. Nobody ever said middle age was easy.

In its early days, some 20 years ago, Pilobolus was considered the epitome of brash youth: sexy, irreverent, often naked or near naked. Most of the company–five men, two women–were not trained dancers but philosophy or English-lit majors who happened to like to dance. The whole enterprise seems to have been a lark. Clearly the body was a plaything, a strong and infinitely malleable object that could be used and abused as needed by these dancer/choreographers–everyone in Pilobolus did both, often collaborating with the others.

Today, none of the original members is still dancing. The six performing members of the company (Adam Battelstein, Kent Lindemer, Rebecca Jung, John-Mario Sevilla, Sebastian Smeureanu, and Jude Woodcock) are young and wonderfully fit; the five current artistic directors (Robby Barnett, Alison Chase, Moses Pendleton, Michael Tracy, and Jonathan Wolken) are all early members and all in their 40s. For them the days of the heroic indefatigable body are gone.

Pilobolus Dance Theatre’s program last week at the Civic Theatre was, given these circumstances, suitably schizophrenic–bracketed by two recent but contrasting long works with large casts. The Particle Zoo (1990), which opened the program, is an athletic tour de force featuring four men bare to the waist and lit to reveal every nuance of musculature (the guy who at first wears a shirt is ostracized). It’s a work full of male camaraderie and competition: hands are clapped to shoulders, fights break out. It’s a gymnastic work, full of somersaults and nosedives into the ground. And it’s a work of considerable humor. Battelstein, the biggest clown, is teased and abused and unceremoniously dropped; he gleefully rides a merry-go-round made up of the other three, then gets clipped in the head. The dance’s final sight gag relies on Battelstein’s comic persona–and he does a fine job of creating it.

The Particle Zoo is not a work of great choreographic ingenuity, however. The music is a collage of lightweight jazzy compositions, and the dancers tend to merely run or walk, stepping on every beat; most of the dancing occurs in the swinging arms and flung torsos. The penultimate section is the most interesting emotionally: it brings the dancers face-to-face in ways that are both hostile and tender, suggesting an almost erotic intimacy. The dancers’ manipulations of each other’s heads look like lovers’ quarrels; an embrace turns into a headlock.

So do the embraces in the 1985 duet Televisitation, which was also performed on this program, but here it’s a woman who puts the lock on a man. This modern-day succubus, who perhaps materialized out of the TV in a downstage corner, teases and finally triumphs over the groggy male, though he has his moments during a comic battle filled with such Pilobolean trademarks as the bawdy skirt-over-the-man’s-head bit. The surreal figure of the succubus, whose motives are completely obscure, bears a certain resemblance to the pixilated female in the 1978 solo Moonblind, also on this program: she shuffles onstage with her feet enveloped in her own portable cloud. In these two works women only sort of get their due–they come across as powerful but enigmatic creatures, men’s antitheses and antagonists.

The last work on the program, still untitled though it was first shown last summer, is a real departure from such humorous, high-spirited battles. Suddenly the confident, purposeful, strenuous movement typical of Pilobolus is gone–or rather it’s transformed into something moody and elegiac. As the piece opens, a woman turns slowly, one arm raised above her head; then two men enter, also turning almost in place on half toe–all three seem to drift in the eddies of some invisible current, passive and self-contained. Even the continued lack of a title seems significant, as if the choreographers (Barnett, Chase, Wolken, and Tracy, with help from the dancers) were saying: we want to be sad, and we don’t want to have to say why.

Much of this untitled work suggests retreat. The elaborate stage design includes a downstage scrim that places the dancers at a hazy distance no matter how close to us they are. The images projected onto it often seem taken from nature, yet they’re also apocalyptic, larger than life–smoky banks of clouds, organic shapes like mushrooms and tree branches so big they dwarf the dancers, ashy fingers of black like horizontal flames. The music, Shostakovich’s haunting Chamber Symphony, is lush but chilling, a major source of the dance’s structure, development, and depressed mood.

Often the movement, either innately or in this context, suggests loss and vulnerability. During the opening a second threesome enters, and the first three suddenly crouch, kneeling, heads down, looking utterly defeated. In a later section of three duets one partner in each is passive: dragged across the floor on her stomach; or hauled like a dead deer, draped across the active partner’s shoulders; or carried like a wounded comrade, face up, stiff, one arm dangling. Movements that in another dance would draw laughter (and even drew a few laughs the night I was there) here look like part of some mysterious, inevitable struggle: froglike hops that seem to come from nowhere, and a tumbling act of violent sideways leaps and rolls.

In fact this rolling and tumbling sequence seems taken verbatim (if that’s the right term) from The Particle Zoo: it closes the first section of that dance with a comic bang. Also taken from The Particle Zoo is a high-energy lift in which one dancer leaps at another who hoists him by the waist high into the air, seemingly ready for takeoff. Of course these motions are changed by the context of the untitled work, turned into something solemn and suggestive by the music in particular; but their repetition hints at a paucity of movement ideas. I wondered why the choreographers couldn’t have found something new, something more appropriate that doesn’t need to be papered over with music and a scrim.

And yet some movements are both new and moving. One dancer holds another under the arms and swishes her body from side to side, as if he were painting the floor in big arcs with her curved legs and pointed feet. A dancer being dragged across the floor on his stomach reaches slowly and painstakingly for his bearer’s waist, then shoulders, and hauls himself up onto the other’s back. No one is dropped in this dance, or put into a headlock. On the contrary, people actually hold one another. The fact is, the kind of partnering Pilobolus does has always required the dancers to trust each other completely; here that trust is pushed into the foreground, where it nearly shades into dependence. The work’s final image contrasts the athletic with the human. Once again the dancers are in three pairs; in two of them one dancer lifts the other high over his head, but in the third she’s held much lower–essentially she’s within embracing range, and she is embraced. This third pair forgoes the flamboyant, the heroic, in favor of the smaller and more human. As Pilobolus does in this flawed but touching step toward a wider, more mature vision.

Last May at the Dance Center’s Choreographers’ Mentor Project, I saw an untitled new work by Bob Eisen that I liked very much: I called it cruel, dark, strange, painful, and hostile at its core. After seeing it last weekend at Link’s Hall under the title Memfigen, I now see that it’s also very funny. Boy, do I feel dense.

I have to say that I think Eisen has sharpened the comic edge: the costumes are now openly ludicrous, particularly the mismatched stripes and patterns worn by four of the five dancers, and he’s stepped up the level of parody in his final sequence of repetitive moves. I guess it could also be argued that there’s a fine line between the horrifying and the humorous. Still, it’s painful to think that I overlooked Eisen’s histrionic looks of tortured exhaustion: the eye popping and tongue lolling are priceless.

Given my track record, I’m reluctant to comment on the other two works on this program. But I think it’s safe to say that Eisen is the most rigorously unsentimental choreographer in town, with a highly refined sense of the ironic. Take Primary Trousers, a premiere: created and performed by Eisen and Sheldon B. Smith, with music by Smith that combines a violin with what sounds like falling lumber, it parodies both ballet and ballroom dance. It’s amusing to see the lanky Eisen and the even lankier Smith partner each other, to see them hold hands in an arabesque penche or twirl beneath each other’s upraised arms. Despite their physical similarities, it’s obvious that Eisen is Smith’s senior by quite a few years, and in contrast to the usual roughness of Eisen’s choreography there’s considerable tenderness and delicacy in the way the older man touches the younger at the small of his back, then clasps his wrist and guides his arm upward.

Primary Trousers ends with the two men in the same pose they adopted at the beginning: facing us in first position. As a tableau it’s aggressively unremarkable, but we know it’s the end because the fluorescent lights come on and a man who looks like a techie carries a ladder onstage and starts setting up electrical cords, lights, and chairs for the next dance. Event #2, an aleatory work first performed last summer, is unusual for the number of props used and lighting effects achieved–Eisen’s work is generally more spartan. Four boom boxes, four ancient suitcases, and several scattered lights produce some pretty striking visual and aural images, but true to form Eisen turns these back on themselves, undermining his own effects.

Because I haven’t seen this work before, I can’t compare this performance with any others–each night the dancers draw slips of paper to determine the order of their phrases, which are set. But it’s clear that Event #2 relies on certain contrasts. Its five dancers (Eisen, Anthony Gongora, Dan Prindle, Smith, and Mark Schulze) take turns walking halfway across the space diagonally with a suitcase in hand, dropping to hands and knees to push the object the remaining distance with their heads, then depositing it on end in the corner–all in excruciating slow motion. The obvious floor pattern and glacial pace of this simple task set off the often frenetic and complicated phrases, almost Saint Vitus’s dances (Gongora’s convolutions were particularly impressive), taking place around it.

Together the battered suitcases, dramatic blue lighting, and painstaking travel across the space evoke some cosmic forced march laden with tristesse, yet the way Eisen overlaps and juxtaposes the taped bits of music undercuts any such metaphoric interpretation. When Chopin is first switched on, midway through the dance, it sounds absurdly sentimental and inappropriate; it’s followed almost immediately by music that resembles traffic noise, a jackhammer, the sound of an approaching train. Later the same Chopin music almost brought tears to my eyes. Event #2 ends when a disorganized-sounding drumroll is unceremoniously clicked off and the cast begins to dismantle the set.

In his dances Eisen intentionally sets up barriers to applause, to interpretation, and almost to emotional response. But the moments of feeling that do descend are as clean, inexplicable, and evanescent as rain during a drought.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Cifani.