The Way They Move

A Pilobolus show concludes a full weekend of dance concerts in the Old Pueblo

Forty years in, Pilobolus is still inventing astonishing new ways for human bodies to move—and to twist into impossible shapes.

The company's show at UA Centennial Hall on Sunday will illustrate its devotion to innovation. The five works on the program range from a Butoh-inflected work created just this year, to an Israeli collaboration from four years ago, to a duet that's almost two decades old.

"We're happy to be thriving after 40 years," co-artistic director and founder Michael Tracy said by phone last week from the company's headquarters in a tiny town in northwestern Connecticut. "But there's still quite a bit of change."

The changes include Pilobolus' collaboration with new and eclectic partners. Witness the 2011 Butoh work "Korokoro," a 25-minute full-company piece created with Japanese choreographer Takuya Muramatsu.

The title is a Japanese onomatopoeic word for the sound that a pebble makes clacking across paved ground, Tracy said. The dance "introduces odd characters onstage who become a group," and incorporates some "sophisticated" trademark Pilobolus duets—in which dance partners mold their bodies into each other.

The Pilobolus style, now seen on TV ads and even on one occasion at the Oscars, merges with Butoh. The Japanese art typically calls for movements of extreme slowness.

"You will see the influence of Butoh on the dancers," Tracy said. Now, even in other pieces, the dancers "think differently about the way they move."

The company recently went through a landmark transition, with the death of co-founder Jonathan Wolken last year. Wolken, Tracy and Robby Barnett found dance and each other in a class at Dartmouth in the late 1960s, and ended up creating a wholly new dance aesthetic. Through Pilobolus, named for a light-seeking fungus, they turned human bodies into flesh-and-blood optical illusions. (The Academy Awards performance in 2007 had the dancers, among other things, morphing into a gigantic Oscar statue.)

Wolken's death is "a great loss," Tracy said. "It's been a year, though, and we're beginning to recover from the blow." His influence survives, in the Pilobolus philosophy of collaboration and in Wolken's choreography. Together, the three founders "developed a company style, a way of teaching and training dancers," Tracy said. The dancers often contribute to the choreography, and the "senior dancers train the others," handing down the legacy.

Pilobolus has always been unusually strong in male dancers, in no small part because the founders were the company's first performers. That tradition continues. The typical full company is a sextet of four men and two women, though the traveling group has eight dancers. But "full-cast" works have only six dancers performing onstage at one time.

One of the women who will perform in Tucson, Jordan Kriston, grew up in Phoenix and danced with Movement Source Dance Company while she worked toward her bachelor's degree in dance at Arizona State University. A member of Pilobolus since just last year, she'll perform in the 1992 "Duet," the oldest work on the program. "Duet" is for two women, but home-state fans can pick out Kriston out by her blond hair.

"'Duet' expresses various relationships with two women over time," Tracy said. "It's evident how strong the women are, and how unique—they're strong in partnering and different in character."

Six dancers perform in 2007's "Rushes," co-choreographed by Israelis Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak, along with Pilobolus' Barnett.

"It's a blend of their style and ours," Tracy noted. Among the typically playful components are miniature chairs. "It's kind of a circus act."

Other works on the program include "Gnomen," a quartet for men composed in 1997 by Wolken and Barnett, and "The Transformation," a group choreographic effort from 1999. A duet for a woman and a man (Kriston and Nile Russell), "The Transformation," is an excerpt from an evening-length work that a second traveling Pilobolus company just danced in Europe.

It hearkens back to old-time stagecraft, demonstrating the troupe's fascination with both new and old.

"It features shadow work—an old, low-tech theater technique," Tracy said, one that Pilobolus used at the Oscars in 2007. "The dancers are casting shadows on a screen. The illusions are more than you could get at home."

The Pilobolean gyrations at Centennial Hall on Sunday night are the final entry in a dance-filled weekend in Tucson.

On Friday night, the same concert hall will host 36 dancers and musicians performing traditional arts from three islands in the South Pacific. And Saturday and Sunday, at the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre, at the other end of campus, dancers from the young company Art.if.Act Dance Project will accompany the Arizona Choir in a rendition of Gian Carlo Menotti's The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore.

The Pacific Islands show, Water Is Rising, features artists from the tiny islands of Tuvalu, Tokelau and Kiribati. Curated by a UCLA professor of intercultural performance, the multimedia concert is designed to highlight the potential cultural losses of global warming, says Darsen Campbell of UApresents. Each of the islands is only 6 to 9 feet above sea level, and should the melting of the polar ice caps trigger even a small rise in the water, the land could be obliterated. Some 113,500 people would be displaced.

Stories, songs and poems about life on the atolls are part of the concert, as are slide projections of the islands' geographical features, architecture and people. The dancers use native shells, woven leaves, palm fronds and flowers in their performance; each island has a distinct dance style, according to press materials.

After debuting at UCLA last weekend, Water Is Rising will tour to 15 venues around the United States, mostly in universities and museums. The UA has put together a noontime discussion panel, led by Nobel Prize-winning climatologist/UA professor Jonathan Overpeck. "Vanishing Islands: Culture and Climate Change," which includes UA professors and Water Is Rising company members Andrew Semeli and Mikaele Maiaya, takes place at noon, Friday, Oct. 21, at the UA Center for Creative Photography, Room 108, 1030 N. Olive Road. Admission is free. For more information, call 621-7968.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Gian Carlo Menotti, the Italian-American composer who died just four years ago, in 2007. Though he's best known for the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, the university's Arizona Choir is celebrating with a performance of Menotti's The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore.

Dr. Bruce Chamberlain conducts the 1956 work for voice, chamber orchestra and dance. The allegorical madrigal uses the three beasts of the title to follow the life path of a poet, from youth to old age.

Four Art.if.Act Dance Project dancers—Claire Hancock, Ashley Bowman, Ellie Hausman and Cory Gram—enact the poet's life changes.

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