One of the lessons to be learned from the example of Pilobolus, the esteemed Connecticut-based dance company, might be to think long and hard about the possible consequences of your youthful larks and distractions. Four decades later you might find yourself addressing the board of directors that has assembled to help you manage what has become an international force, within a discipline you'd never thought much about as a young man.
Robby Barnett is one of Pilobolus' three artistic directors. He's also one of the founders who, toward collecting elective credit hours at Dartmouth College, took a dance class, for which he helped create the dance "Pilobolus." The title is actually "Pilobolus (crystallinus)," an oblique homage to a tiny fungus that's famous—for a fungus, anyway—for its eight-foot-plus spore-launching range.
Barnett says he's as surprised and impressed as the next guy by the group's longevity.
"I got an e-mail from a board member the other day who said he thought the signifying characteristics of Pilobolus were humility, anarchy, and self-delight," Barnett says. "We never sat down and tried to name the company's core values or anything like that. But I think those three things would work well and be accurate."
Foolish the man who thinks words can adequately describe or transliterate what happens on a Pilobolus stage. You need to see it and feel it. It is dance, of course. It's also gymnastics, comedy, opera (closer to Chinese than Italian), and theater. If a card trick is sleight of hand, Pilobolus accomplishes something you might call sleight of body. They do things to themselves and each other seemingly independent of gravity and all the other laws of physics that limit the rest of us. And they do it beautifully.
"Someone once called us a dance company for people who don't like dance," Barnett says. "I don't disagree with that, though I would frame it in the humility I mentioned before. We don't pretend to know anything about dance or that tradition. If anything, we're just slack-jawed rubes staring up at the tall buildings."
The Pilobolus program for the upcoming Knoxville performance is a bookend survey. You'll be able to see works from the group's formative years, mostly created when the founding choreographers were dreaming up amazing things for their own bodies to do. You'll also see commissions and collaborations that premiered this year and last.
After a decade of touring that began in 1971, Barnett and his co-founders considered folding up the tent. They'd had a good run. Then someone reminded them that other companies actually hire dancers to tour and perform their works. Pilobolus fans have had the pleasure of seeing multiple generations of perfect physiques emote the unutterable on stages all over the world.
On the subject of an almost constantly changing company, Barnett says, "It's good for us over the long term, but it's very disruptive to lose people. Five years is average. Ten years would be ideal. We invest a lot of time and energy in training these people, and they really don't start to get good until around the third year.
"It's always interesting to get new people. They bring new abilities, new ways of looking at the world."
Barnett says he thinks Pilobolus demonstrates that creativity can be focused in any direction. On another day, he says, he and his college athlete friends might have started a rock band instead of a dance company.
"The way people organize ideas is more important than the ideas themselves," he says.
That collective mindset comes into play as the company changes personnel.
"When we audition new dancers, we start with running and jumping," Barnett says. "That usually weeds out about 90 percent of them. But once you determine that someone can jump really high and run gracefully, then you see what they're reading and what they think about."
Barnett says that's one of the things that allows Pilobolus to tour far from cosmopolitan urban centers (or to Southern university cities with schools that have just lost their dance programs) and still be well received. The group is made up of extremely capable physical artists, but they're also smart and sensitive people, enjoying or troubling over the same things you are.
"Because there are so many of us, once four or five us agree that something is interesting, we can assume that others will find it interesting," Barnett says. "When you see Pilobolus, what you're seeing is our view of the world at any given moment. You don't need to know anything about dance to appreciate it."