Forty years ago, Pilobolus — a group of Dartmouth College students and their dance composition teacher, Alison Chase — began to surprise the world with an inventive physicality, out-of-the-box ideas and an extraordinary knack for collaborative work. Now based out of Washington Depot, Connecticut, Pilobolus Dance Theatre is a well-loved wild child in the modern-dance community, renowned for a host of things including imaginative body shapes made through weight-sharing, bodybuilder strength and, recently, technological integration.
On March 16, Pilobolus will visit Atlanta on its national tour to perform at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts at 8 p.m., one night only.
The seven-member troupe will present five works that showcase its collaborations with multidisciplinary artists. A preview of a new collaboration with famed juggler Michael Moschen will open the show. It will be followed by the Grammy Award-nominated “All Is Not Lost,” a joint creation with rock band OK Go that went viral on YouTube; “Korokoro,” a strange, clambering collaboration with Japanese Butoh choreographer Takuya Muramatsu of the Dairakudakan company; “Seraph,” a work about relationships between humans and machines created in partnership with the MIT Distributed Robotics Laboratory; and “Megawatt,” a physical work that pounds with energy.
Recently, we spoke with Robby Barnett, Pilobolus’ artistic director since 1971, about where the company is now, where it is going and what Atlanta should expect from the Ferst performance.
ArtsATL: For 40 years, Pilobolus has been an imaginative phenomenon in the dance world. At its core, what do you think makes the company so unique?
We began without any training in dance, which I think freed us to do things that other people might not have even considered. It’s a powerful tool if you don’t know what you can’t do. You are at liberty to do things that you find interesting as opposed to things you think are supposed to look like something else. And, unlike choreographers who usually work with groups of dancers who do their bidding, we were a group of people who were interested in making something together.
In many ways, those two founding principles have sustained the company for 40 years. We continue to look for physical material that is interesting to our eye, without regard to whether or not it conforms in any way to what people usually consider dance. We do things together and, as the years have gone, we have extended that collective spirit to include a few other people from the world at large.
ArtsATL: With “All Is Not Lost,” a piece you will perform at the Ferst Center, how did the company collaborate with the rock band OK Go?
Barnett: We thought OK Go was cool and we liked the videos they had done. So we gave them a call and asked them if they would be interested in doing something together.
It turns out that Damian Kulash, who is the lead singer and guitarist, has a sister named Trish Sie, who has been their director and choreographer. We were a group of collaborators: seven dancers, four choreographers, four OK Go band members and Trish Sie. So we were quite a group.
We approached it in the studio to see what we could do. We came in with a number of ideas, and Trish had an idea of doing something from under a glass table. After a week of experimentation, that seemed to be the idea that was most promising. So we put in a few more weeks of work, and what we came out with was a video and a stage performance.
It was interesting, fruitful and educational; it was a great experience. The piece is fun and fast because the song is less than four minutes long. As a modern dance it’s very quick, and for a pop song it’s about the right length. I think it’s funny, surprising and entertaining, and people have enjoyed it a lot.
ArtsATL: At the Ferst, you will premiere a piece and preview one still in draft form in collaboration with renowned juggler Michael Moschen. Can you tell us what the process has been thus far and what we can expect?
Barnett: Michael Moschen has developed a wholly original process of handling objects. He enlivens what we normally think of as inanimate objects to make them move in surprising ways. He essentially invented what is now called static juggling, which is where you are not throwing objects or balls, but manipulating and maintaining touch with them. It’s miraculous.
Also, he is a neighbor of ours, so we have known each other for a while and we have talked about working together for a long time.
As always, our process is to get into the studio and fool around for a while until we see something we like. He came in with a lot of interesting toys and after a few weeks of playing, we settled on a group of objects. We are now in the process of organizing this. The current prototype is 20 minutes and is low-tech. It’s humans touching aluminum.
ArtsATL: “Megawatt” is an odd, electrifying work that premiered in 2005. What do you think it represents for the company, and how do you think the performers approach that work?
Barnett: It is also not as concerned with partnering, and most of our works involve physical contact. “Megawatt” gives our dancers the chance to move around a bit more, and I think they are quite impressive. In many ways it feels like an urban piece to me, although Pilobolus began our work in the country and we live in the country. Our offices here are in an old grain building. Modern dance in particular is an urban art form, and we have never lived in the city; in fact, our town is minute.
When Jonathan Wolken set out to make “Megawatt,” he wanted to see what our dancers could do if they applied themselves with full energy for 15 minutes straight. That is the going thread — maximum effort all the time. The piece has a considerable element of propulsion. I think it’s funny yet almost apocalyptic.