By Diana Nollen
Pilobolus dancers don’t lift weights. They lift each other.
The beautiful bodies that slither, entwine and balance in seemingly impossible shapes spend about seven hours a day in motion to create their art.
“Rehearsing or making new work is our training,” says Robby Barnett, 60, artistic director of the modern dance troupe based in Washington Depot, Conn. “Occasionally they do a little running.”
The acclaimed troupe’s national tour will bring seven dancers to Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center in Cedar Falls next Sunday at 3 p.m.
Named for a mushroom that seeks out light, Pilobolus grew out of a dance class at Dartmouth College nearly 40 years ago.
Barnett was one of the four guys who took that class, got hooked and became the troupe’s initial members. They weren’t dance majors. “There was no dance major at Dartmouth,” Barnett says. He was an art major.
“Within a period of six months, we went from a dance choreographed in a dance class” by students Moses Pendleton and Jonathan Wolken to a fledgling dance troupe. Since 1971, it’s expanded into Pilobolus Dance Theatre; The Pilobolus Institute educational wing; and Pilobolus Creative Services, bringing their pioneering movement skills to film, advertising, publishing, commercial clients and corporate events.
“It’s all pretty improbable,” Barnett says.
And the improbable name?
“One of my partners grew up working in his father’s biophysics lab. Pilobolus was a subject of interest and study. (The mushrooms) have a very effective series of light sensors and can shoot their spores with incredible accuracy. So when we had to name (the company), Pilobolus sounded better than Vermont Natural Theatre,” he says, later explaining that the troupe started out living in “a big, old farmhouse in Vermont.”
The chosen name is “outdoorsy,” he says. “It’s adventurous, it’s powerful and it’s light-seeking. What’s not to emulate?”
The seven dancers on the tour bring very diverse backgrounds to the troupe. One started dancing at age 3 and progressed through the Juilliard School, most have college degrees in dance, some have branched into martial arts and acrobatics and others didn’t begin studying dance until they were young adults.
“That’s typical of modern dancers,” Barnett says. “They tend to be an intelligent lot. The men came to dance late and the girls started in ballet when they had tummies and tutus.”
Collaboration is the hallmark of Pilobolus. Everybody brings something from their own experiences to the choreographic process.
“A group of people get together in a studio to begin going through a period of free play,” Barnett explains, “in an effort to see what we’re thinking about at a given point. The works are built as a sort of preservation of that time. People will do certain things, interact and do different things depending on what they’re wearing and the seasons. The dances reflect that as they come together over time. It’s like a jam.”
He says the troupe budgets about six weeks to take a new dance from beginning to premiere.
They’ll bring six pieces to the Cedar Falls program, including “Gnomen,” a classic men’s quartet piece from 1997; a solo; a new untitled duet; a short shadow piece like the ones Pilobolus performed at the 2007 Academy Awards; “Laterna Magica” from 2008, which Barnett describes as “a good introduction to Pilobolus’ compound partnering; and “Megawatt” from 2004, “a high energy piece with a good score, that gives people an idea of what Pilobolus looks like without 300 pounds on its back,” Barnett says.
The artists all live in close proximity of each other and the studio, which Barnett says helps foster their collaborative atmosphere.
“We believe in a harmonious society. The way we try to encourage each other and live makes a difference in the work we do,” he says. “The work we do goes out on the road to sustain an organization — the way people work together in a civilized society to make something they can’t do by themselves.”
In the early days, they lived together, but acquired separate homes when they started having families. Barnett has a daughter who is a computer programmer and a son who hopes to be a teacher.
It’s a way of life he’s been living for 40 years.
“I’ve devoted my entire adult life to this work. It’s creatively challenging,” he says. “My life in Pilobolus has been one of collective activity … with interaction of groups. I’ve worked with these partners all my adult life.
“What we know about comedy and how people live and work together harmoniously — our business and our art have never been separate features. We have an art of business and a business of art and the two things are reinforcing.
“We created an organization that is more interesting fundamentally than any of the individual pieces we do,” he says.
“As we look to the years ahead, we’re interested in having Pilobolus stand for something in addition to good work. We like to believe it stands for good living as a metaphor for a civilized society.”
What: Pilobolus modern dance performance
When: 3 p.m. Jan. 31
Where: Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center, 8392 University Ave., Cedar Falls
Tickets: $22 to $36 adults, $1 ages 18 and under, through (319) 273-4849, 1-(877) 549-7469 or www.unitix.uni.edu
Information: www.uni.edu/gbpac or www.pilobolus.com