If you can’t dance, don’t sit it out

Pilobolus rewrites the rules of modern dance

Elizabeth Miller | Boulder Weekly

Forty years ago at Dartmouth College, it wasn’t “those who can’t dance, teach.” It was those who can’t dance, reinvent the medium itself.

Four college students with no prior dance experience enrolled in a dance class and, lacking the traditional dance vocabulary, started to play with what their bodies could do. They went on to launch a dance company that has been turning the ideas of modern dance on their head — and wrapping them around, tying them in knots and bending them backwards.

“Lack of training disallowed us from focusing on our bodies as ballet or model vessels. They were clay. They were raw material that we had to figure out something to do with,” says Michael Tracy, one of the founding members and current artistic directors of the now internationally renowned dance company Pilobolus. “That sort of necessitated a wider range of images for us, that was available to us, it just let out a whole vocabulary of dance movement that we weren’t able to do.”

Dance just sort of caught their imaginations, Tracy says, and they built on what they did know — a sense of athleticism and theatricality — to complete weekly homework assignments in choreography.

“When we graduated, we decided it would be more interesting to start a dance company than to become lawyers or philosophers,” Tracy says.

The company has evolved in the decades since then, taking advice from critics, but more importantly, constantly taking input from its dancers. Rather than having a single choreographer, the company looks to its six dancers, and now veteran dancers turned artistic directors, to craft the choreography.

“Compared with most companies, who have one choreographer who has a specific style that may develop over the years but is essentially one viewpoint, we’ve already had a number of choreographers. We work collaboratively. We always have,” Tracy says. That collaboration has built a diverse repertoire of pieces over the years.

“Surprisingly, as the dances have changed over the years and our bodies have changed, we haven’t run out of things you can do with six human bodies,” Tracy says. “We keep finding things that are interesting and complex and confounding.”

The costumes, or lack thereof, are designed to fit with the pieces, while not dictating what you see of the dance — though what you see is often a lot more flesh than the average audience member might be comfortable with.

“The dancers, they morph in front of you. They could be one or two or three or six combined, and you see animals that have nothing to do with the people that are performing them, and so you want these costumes that are malleable,” Tracy says. “They need to be people, and then they need to be trees or a forest of trees. … But inevitably it’s people. That’s the thing that makes dance interesting. No matter what the shapes and the colors and the costumes are, those are people moving in ways that we never thought of moving, but with a little bit of training we could be.”

The primary concern, though, for their two-week tour in Colorado, is altitude. Dancers are packing aspirin for altitude sickness, and oxygen tanks will be waiting in the wings, Tracy says.

This is the third performance — and third sold-out performance — of Pilobolus in Boulder.

“My first response was, how in the world do they do that?” says Joan Braun, executive director of CU Presents, which is bringing Pilobolus back. “Their particular kind of weight-sharing, it’s a really interesting way to collaborate with another person where you’re kind of creating a sculpture of human forms. … There’s a little bit of a ‘don’t try this at home,’ which of course we all do, with very humorous results.”

The program includes pieces that have not been performed in Boulder before, such as “All is Not Lost,” which was created for the music video for the song of the same name by the band OK Go and has been nominated for a Grammy.

“It’s been kind of an Internet sensation,” Braun says. “It’s really interesting, mind-bending, to figure out, how are they doing this?” While it’s hardly a substitute for seeing the show, it’s just enough of a dose of human clay in action to start melting your brain.

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On the Bill: Pilobolus plays Macky Auditorium on Saturday, Jan. 21. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are sold out. 1595 Pleasant St., 303-492-8423.