The famed dance troupe's first performance in Pittsburgh in eight years was characteristically joyful. But it was also tinged with sadness, serving partly as a tribute to its visionary Pittsburgh-born co-founder, Jonathan Wolken.
Wolken died in June, at age 60. The second act of last night's performance was preceded by a short video tribute to the Peabody High graduate, who grew up in Shadyside. He went on to Dartmouth University, where as a philosophy major he wandered into a dance class, met co-conspirators including Moses Pendleton, and created the group whose signature bodysuits and freewheeling, sculptural style would make it world-renowned. (At the Byham, I ran into local artist Carolina Loyola-Garcia, who'd previously seen the group perform in her native Chile.)
Still, Pilobolus has changed a lot. The leadoff work at last night's Pittsburgh Dance Council show, "Contradance," felt more like circus plus dance-theater than the trademarked "Pilobolus" style. The six performers wore mostly stage-bumpkin costumes, and combined clowning, props and modified square-dance forms. They moved to a score alternating between square-dance music, string-band waltzes and roots rock (the latter by Dan Zanes). And the work told a spare but easily discernible story about an outsider who falls in love. It was funny, charming and winsomek, and just avoided corniness.
Early Pilobolus was represented by "Pseudopodia," a 1973 solo Wolken himself choreographed (and which we glimpsed him performing in that video). Dancer Jun Kuribayashi moved beguilingly through this intense series of tumbles and yoga-derived passages, all set to Wolken and Pendleton's driving, percussive score.
The act ended with 1992's "Duet," an emotionally intense worked Pittsburgh audiences might know from a few performances of it by our own Dance Alloy Theater. Like the four-dancer "Gnomen" (1997), which opened act two, "Duet" was in the classic Pilobolus vein: People making themselves into human statuary -- or organic machines, like the three-man wheel (hands linked to partners' ankles) that traversed the proscenium in "Gnomen."
Throughout its history, Pilobolus divided critics and dance purists, and it's easy to see why. The troupe was founded by people with scant formal training, and frequently engages in what looks like spectacle for spectacle's sake.
And of course that's a big reason audiences like Pilobolus. The sudden and enormous popularity of a troupe purveying a form of dance punctuated with slapstick comedy (even in more somber works like "Gnomen") couldn't have charmed the dance intelligensia, either.
In fact, works like "Duet" and "Gnomen" are quite moving at times. But it's probably also fair to say there's dance out there that's more intellectually provocative, or plumbs the human condition more deeply.
Still, there's certainly something in us (and it probably goes back to our brachiating ancestors) that loves merely to see what the body can do. It's like the excitement of wandering through the woods and suddenly spotting a new species of bird.
And so if you ever wondered what it would look like were seven people, lying on their backs shoulder to shoulder, to open a dance work by wriggling in unison from the wings like inchworms, last night's closer, "Megawatt," was for you.
Wolken was the lead choreographer on this hyperkinetic 2004 work, set to music by Primus, Radiohead and Squarepusher. In historical terms, there was perhaps little to identify it as a Pilobolus work, except in its celebration of the sheer fun of being alive.