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The Circus Ideal

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Saturday, 3/31 • 8 p.m.
Kenan Auditorium
601 S. College Rd.
$35-45 • students w/ ID free

The dancers of Pilobolus are not merely ballerinas. They are not strictly purveyors of jazz or modern dance. Rather, they are sculptural artists, gymnasts, contortionists, thespians and athletes. Like a traveling carnival, their stunning acts elicit joy and wonder as they balance, leap, curl and cavort together—each cooperating to turn singular, separate bodies into one whole form.

In 2012 Pilobolus—now an entire creative nonprofit organization, with branches of projects and programs—celebrates its 41st anniversary. When the founders of Pilobolus joined in 1971 at Dartmouth College, they could not fathom the success they would endure.
“We were college students looking for an alternative to going to graduate school,” Robby Barnett , artistic director, explains. “We started our own circus and then ran away and joined it. The fact that people liked it, and we’re still doing it today, continues to amaze us.”

Over 100 performances later, they have traveled across 64 countries and recorded commercials for the likes of Ford, Hyundai and Bidvest. They’ve taken to television on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” “60 Minutes” and even “Sesame Street.” Their accolades go on and on, honors including the Berlin Critic’s Prize, the Scotsman Award, the Brandeis Award, and a Primetime Emmy Award for outstanding achievement in cultural programming.

Recognized for their timeless contributions to the field of dance, Pilobolus was the first collective group to ever garner the Dance Magazine Award. Yet, the ensemble never set out to challenge or change the art of dance.

“That we were slightly outside the traditional approach was coincidental,” Barnett details. “We didn’t really know anything about dance, so we certainly weren’t making any effort to do something differently—we sort of did what seemed cool and it turned out to be different. I would say our approach is the same today.”

On Saturday, March 31st, Pilobolus will perform at UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium. The show’s five selections are highlights from the troupe’s 40-year career, three of which Barnett had a hand in creating.Opening the show will be “Rushes,” a piece with detailed, small-scale, insect-like movement peppered with larger motions—such as when three men stack upon each other to build the pendulum of a clock, swaying with momentum and force. Incorporating Peter Sluszka’s animation with a screen projection, “Rushes” develops into a dream. Literally, the audience witnesses the madness behind the mind of a character.

“We began a project in 2007, [called] the International Collaborators Project, in which we invite people to join us in the studio,” Barnett says. “Our first foray at that was to ask the Israeli choreographers Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak to work with us. ‘Rushes’ is the result of that collaboration.”

Collaboration is key in Pilobolus’ work, which works from the foundation that groups of people can share ideas and mold something to both reflect their individual and collective interests. “Our collaborations have taken us farther afield but are still founded on the same principle,” Barnett describes. “We did a video with a band, OK Go, this [past] year, which was nominated for a Grammy. So our Collaborators Project has continued to evolve in much the way we hoped.”

Following “Rushes” will be “The Transformation,” an excerpt from the Pilobolus show, “Shadowland,” currently running in Paris with their second dance company. The 2009 idea blossomed from their work in a car commercial. The members decided it was time to use what they learned for their own artful purposes. In “Shadowland,” the dancers perform behind a screen, folding into different shapes and creatures. The result is whimsical and delightful as a young girl’s coming-of-age tale is spun.

“Between ‘Shadowland’ and our various business-related uses of shadow, a lot of stuff has shown up on YouTube and a lot of people—those who didn’t know us as a performing arts organization—have come to think of us as a shadow company,” Barnett tells. “We thought we should represent that aspect of our explorations in our show. ‘Transformation’ is a very concise but bubbly and magical excerpt which gives the audience a taste of how wonderful and simple the effects of shadows can be.”

Following the intermission will be “Duet,” a piece from 1992. With only two female dancers, the characters hypnotize the audience as they fluidly leap and turn in a graceful adagio. It was especially designed for Becky Jung and Jude Woodcock, who were then in the company.

“Becky died this last year very tragically and early, but ‘Duet’ was the outcome of the effort to find a vehicle for these two women,” Barnett shares. “We happen to have two extraordinarily talented women in our company today, and we revived ‘Duet’ specifically so that they could give this their own interpretation.” On this tour, the dance is being performed in Jung’s honor.

Ultimately, Pilobolus pushes the threshold of all cutural arts, whether intently or not. From the company’s dance theatre comes witty avant-garde productions. From the division of creative services comes invention for a variety of fields: film, advertising, publishing and even corporate events. In the Pilobolus Institute, dancers and non-athletics alike take part in educational programs with a group-based creative process.

“Pilobolus is not just a dance company—we’re really an arts organism,” Barnett suggests. “Our belief that people can gather together, and find a meeting of mind to make things well seems to be enormously adaptable and broadly applicable.”

This mindset is the brainchild of the Pilobolus founders. Though they did not endeavor to change dance, they do have a desire to change the world. “This is the thing we feel about our company: We are advocating a way to live and work in some sort of integrated fashion. It stands for a kind of utopian ideal. It really ends up being a model for a harmonious, civil society.”

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