Pilobolus, the Connecticut-based modern-dance company with the funny-sounding name, has all the hallmarks of an obscure, underground arty project: It's named after a form of fungus; it's a collaborative venture with only six dancers but four artistic directors; and its modular, sculptural aesthetic and goofy humor harken back to the early 1970s, when the ensemble started as an extracurricular activity for Dartmouth College students.
But make no mistake: Pilobolus, appearing at the Chicago Theatre this weekend, is one of the most commercially savvy modern-dance companies of all time. In addition to the touring companies Pilobolus Dance Theatre and Pilobolus Too, the company has an eight-year-old creative services division which, according to the group's website (www.pilobolus.com), "creates original work for advertising, film and television, special corporate events and fund-raising galas." No doubt, you've seen the work of Pilobolus on a billboard or two.
While most small, contemporary dance outfits work project-to-project without regular salaries or benefits, Pilobolus picks and chooses projects and offers its dancers juicy contracts. The troupe has managed to flourish as a dance-driven endeavor in an entertainment market saturated with TV, movies and sporting events.
Why haven't more dance companies followed Pilobolus' example? It helps that the group's work is fun and delightful to the eye: The athlete-dancers' skills are a hybrid of circus arts, yoga, dance and gymnastics. Most of the group's pieces are easy to sit through: They're within the time ranges of your average pop song or sitcom, and have a brightly colored, clearly outlined visual style that is reminiscent of cartoon animation. "We do what we do," co–artistic director Michael Tracy says. "It's up to the audience to decide if it's art or not, or entertainment or not. We're doing our job if we sell tickets."
Another reason for the rarity of Pilobolus' phenomenal success in the dance world might be the nature of their collectively run venture. Co–artistic directors Tracy, Jonathan Wolken, Alison Chase and Robby Barnett share the administrative and creative load. The company structure of Pilobolus has been likened to a 35-year marriage of four people. "Other dance companies are about the individual [artistic director] and the power of the individual," Tracy says. "What is interesting about our group is that however powerful we may individually be, we always focus on the perspective of the group." Pilobolus is not immune to the general perception that dancing is a trivial occupation. "Many people see [what we do] as frivolous," Tracy says. "Even though the four of us have spent our whole lives building the company and that is all we have ever done. It looks like play, looks like all fun. But it actually takes skills and a certain amount of effort not only to physically dance, but to emotionally invest your whole life."
Pilobolus's program this weekend includes four works that span the history of the company. The vaudevillian Walklyndon was choreographed in 1971, Day Two is a 1980 Pilobolus "classic" set to music by Brian Eno and Talking Heads, and the aerial duet Ben's Admonition dates from 2002. Additionally, 2005's Aquatica will have its Chicago premiere.
Tracy, who choreographed Aquatica, describes the work: "If you ever look under a microscope, there is an amazing array of creatures underwater. So a lot of the images [onstage] hopefully convey that kind of wonder, that kind of discovery. The dancers combine to create all kinds of locomotive structures and communication systems. We see fishes swimming in pods, crabs crawling on the sea floor and unclassified creatures, too."
Pilobolus appears at the Chicago Theatre on Friday 14 and Saturday 15.