Throwing Weight Around

The young men and women of Pilobolus are ready to get twisted

In any other troupe, Andy Herro might be called a chip off the old block. But he's a dancer with Pilobolus: Better to call him a curve off the old spiral, a twist off the old pretzel.

Like the founders of this acrobatic company, which stops at Centennial Hall for a 6 p.m. show Sunday, Herro never touched toe to barre until he got out of high school.

"I had no clue what modern dance was before I went to college," he said last week by phone from Salt Lake City, where he'd just come from a modern class at the University of Utah, warming up for two sold-out shows. "In high school, I played football, wrestling, tennis. I did swing dance."

When he got to Marquette University in Milwaukee, he knew he wasn't going to play sports, but he still "needed to do something physical." On the first day of his freshman year, he approached Darci Wutz, the school's lone dance professor, who taught part-time. "I went to her and said I'd do whatever it takes. She took me under her wing. I took every class she had twice."

Herro's story jibes nicely with the Pilobolus founding myth. A gaggle of Dartmouth College men created the eclectic troupe in 1971 after they discovered modern dance in a class taught by Alison Chase. They hadn't grown up doing pliés in the studio, but they were athletes, and they invented comical, theatrical works that relied on the muscular strength of young men. With their distinctive "weight-sharing" techniques, they created living sculptures--which sometimes cartwheel across the stage.

"Aquatica" from 2005, for instance, one of five dances on the Centennial program, takes place under the sea. Waves pull a woman (Annika Sheaff) down to the briny deep, where she finds five other dancers slithering about portraying all manner of sea creatures and corals. (The troupe of seven now has both women and men.)

"The beautiful thing about Pilobolus is that it was started by three men who were nondancers," Herro says. "The movement they created was not about specific dance technique. We don't use a pointed foot, or land in perfect lines."

Still, tailor-made as Herro seems for the troupe, he didn't get in on his first try. After earning a theater degree in 2003--he even now nurses ambitions of performing in Broadway musicals--a friend tipped him off to an open Pilobolus audition. He drove to New York with some theater buddies--including his future wife, Julia, now an actress in their home base of New York. He didn't make the cut, so he returned to Milwaukee to run a bar.

"But six months after the audition, a dancer was injured, and they asked if I could join for two months. Three and a half years later, I'm still here." (The other dancer returned, but was hurt again and subsequently left the company.)

Nowadays, as a full-fledged member, Herro, 26, helps create the new pieces. The troupe was collaborative from the start--it has three artistic directors--and dancers get full credit for the choreography they contribute to. The troupe's famous moves look hard--all those pretzel-like partnerings and contact improvisations--but "we create the things that we can do. You create the piece with the artistic director. If you can do a somersault in the air, we'll use it."

It's more difficult, he acknowledged, to learn the older repertory--which is based on the strengths of previous troupe members, who sometimes "come and teach us all their little tricks." When he first started, he did nothing but rehearse, eat and sleep for months, trying to learn the works; he put on 15 pounds of muscle mass.

"You use every muscle you have, but it's overuse. After a year, I finally began to understand how to do it, how to physically use my body" while conserving its strengths.

The show this weekend serves up early and late Pilobolus, and Herro, co-dance captain, dances a solo, a duet and a group work. His solo is a fragment from "Empty Suitor," a 1980 work by artistic director Michael Tracy, about a fellow in top hat and cravat trying to keep his dignity as he comically deals with rejection by a seductive woman. "There's a beach, with five PVC pipes. She lures me to the rollers," he says, and tries to keep himself aloft while sliding across the pipes.

The duet, with Sheaff, is the 2006 work "Memento Mori," choreographed by founding artistic director Jonathan Wolken, with Renée Jaworski and Herro himself.

"It's about an old couple who become young again, and go through the trials and tribulations of their relationship. But it's very funny. It's theatrically based, very character-based." The piece is accompanied partly by the recorded singing of Florence Foster Jenkins, the amateur soprano recently lampooned in Arizona Theatre Company's production of Souvenir.

Herro is part of an ensemble of six in "Day Two," a 1980 dance by founding artistic director Moses Pendleton, who left the company to form MOMIX.

"This is a classic from the early days. It's a primal piece with the men in dance belts and the women in onesies--just what's necessary. It's very ritualistic." The back story: The troupe was working on a new piece in their digs in rural Connecticut, and when a thunderstorm broke out, the dancers rushed outside and cavorted in the mud. The next day, "Day Two," says Herro, "They used the movement from sliding in the mud in the piece. It's confrontational, tribal movement."

Also on the program is "Walklyndon," a dance for five from 1971. One of the first-ever Pilobolus works, it's a "slapsticky, funny piece with no music, with characters doing funny walks and flips." Any relation to the Monty Python sketch "Ministry of Funny Walks," of the same vintage?

"No, no relation," Herro said. "We try not to be influenced by anybody else."