When seven amateur dancers banded together at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College in 1971 to indulge their shared sense of fun, love of physical invention and curiosity about the natural world, they couldn’t have known how prophetic their chosen name would be.
Pilobolus, a morphing fungus, has come to be a metaphor for the troupe, which has invented a communal creative process that allows it to keep propagating ideas in physical form even as its members change. Essentially, Pilobolus is its creative method — which has turned out to be a highly successful survival mechanism.
“We have kept the idea of collaboration as the singular organizing feature of the company,” says Robby Barnett, head artistic director and the only original member still with Pilobolus.
“This creative process can be formalized. It partakes of the macro dynamics of human society and the biological truth of how organisms can grow. Pilobolus is both a society and an organism interested in maintaining itself. We are a selfish gene.”
That focus on survival has not only enabled Pilobolus – which appears at the Adrienne Arsht Center on Friday and Saturday – to be productive and successful. It has also allowed it to branch out in ways that may be unique for a dance troupe.
Pilobolus has taught its group creative process in corporate team-building retreats, TED talks and innovative schools like the Harlem Children’s Zone. Its collaborators have included MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the children’s illustrator Maurice Sendak and the graphic novelist Art Spiegelman.
“We had discovered things about how people can make things together which was broadly applicable,” says Barnett, 63. “You didn’t have to be a choreographer to make dances.”
That collaborative ethos will be on display in the Miami program, which includes [esc], made with magicians Penn & Teller, and The Transformation, an excerpt from the evening-length Shadowland created with Steven Banks, lead writer for the kids’ cartoon Spongebob Squarepants.
Barnett won’t reveal much about [esc], which premiered in New York last summer, except to say that it consists of three “pretty incredible” escapes and a magic trick, and that working on it forced both Penn & Teller and the company’s dancer-inventors to up their game.
“We wanted to do some magic and they wanted to see what we could do physically,” he says. “They wrapped us up in some straitjackets and it took us like seven seconds to get out.”
They found common ground with Banks, the Spongebob writer, through his talent for telling stories in fantastical images, which Pilobolus linked to its experiments in how shadows can create the illusion of changing shapes and creatures.
“His idea was telling zany, crazy, graphic stories,” says Mark Kent, who began as a dancer in 1996 and has become one of the troupe’s three associate artistic directors. “You’re giving a lot of information through the image.”
The results were showcased on the Oscars in 2007, and Shadowland became a touring show that has been seen by half a million people in Europe.
While the company maintains a business office in New York, the real work for the seven dancers and various artistic directors and collaborators takes place 48 weeks a year at their compound in Washington Depot, Conn. They can work on ideas for months or even years, improvising, experimenting and discussing. Each person gets a say, physically and intellectually – but ultimately, they all have to agree. (Perhaps Pilobolus should do workshops in Congress.)
“You see something that makes you sit up, that you haven’t seen before,” says Barnett. “You say, ‘Let’s do that again …’ You see it five, 10 times, and it’s not quite there but you still have an ideal in your head. And you finally have to decide whether the real thing is close enough to that ideal.”
As it has honed its hippie-communal ethos, Pilobolus has found that its creative process has become increasingly relevant.
“In a rapidly interconnected world there are certain sets of problems and tasks where working in groups is inescapable,” say Barnett. “Our adherence to doing things collectively seems more timely every year.”
In Licks, also on the Miami program, Pilobolus worked with Bosstich and Fussible, composer-DJs from the Tijuana-based electronic music group Nortec Collective, and choreographer-director Trish Sie, who partnered with Pilobolus and alternative pop group Okay Go on the Grammy-nominated video All Is Not Lost, whose kaleidoscopic insect imagery has gotten more than 1.5 million hits on Youtube.
That openness to popular culture, and Pilobolus’ enthusiasm for humor and cool-looking images, has helped it appeal to a much broader audience than most modern dance groups. But it has also earned Pilobolus criticism that it goes for entertainment over art, stunts over dancing.
Barnett defends but does not apologize for the company’s philosophy. “Pilobolus started because we were looking for fun,” he says. “The only thing we think about is whether something is funny or beautiful, and the fact that we’re still around is a testament to the fact that most people agree with us. We acknowledge that much of our humor is dumb. But we don’t make excuses for being entertaining.
“You can convince people that what they’re looking at is art. But you can’t convince them they’re having fun when they’re not.”