What’s this? Boisterous Eastern European music blaring in the Amphitheater as surprisingly timid strongmen flex and preen?
Given this week’s “Russia and the West” theme at Chautauqua Institution, with its often cautionary tone, it was a bit jarring to see Tuesday night’s audience spring to its feet and rhythmically clap along to “á la B’zyrk,” a madcap display of ersatz Russian bravado.
But Pilobolus will do that to you.
The wizardly allures of this dance troupe, which is approaching its 50th anniversary, were on frequent display in “Pilobolus Maximus,” the first of two evening performances this week. Half of the six pieces may have essentially been curtain raisers, and two of the longer works may have covered similar ground. But even lesser Pilobolus works — and I’d count “á la B’zyrk,” which appeared twice in the program, among that number — outcharm and out-wow virtually any other dance troupe working today.
Take the surreal 2007 fantasia “Rushes,” which featured maybe the program’s most compelling image: a man carrying a woman along a seemingly endless row of chairs, created as two fellow dancers rhythmically, untiringly replenish the chairs in front of the couple from those they had just traversed.
Not everything in “Rushes” bears such scrutiny. Like many other Pilobolus pieces, it feels like a story ballet, albeit one recounted by a gifted but distracted student who missed the class when that particular story was taught and who instead tries to brazen his way through a retelling for the exam. This off-kilter, will-they-get-away-with-it specificity brings to mind one of those improv-comedy exercises where disparate ideas are thrown together in real time. “Kafka, but Dixieland-style!” “The fall of man, but with some mixed martial arts thrown in! And on a table!”
This last description could be used to describe the evening’s strongest piece, “On the Nature of Things.” While trying to discern the meaning of many Pilobolus works may say as much about the discerner as about the company, this 2014 piece — in which the supremely controlled Benjamin Coalter deposits on a round table first a man and then a woman before bringing them to life and then (temporarily) leaving them to it — pretty clearly feels like a riff on Adam and Eve. The interactions between the newly vivified humans (Nathaniel Buchsbaum and Krystal Butler) buzz with curiosity and barely sublimated sexuality, and their grapples near the edge of the tabletop make the idea of Adam and Eve’s inevitable fall all too real.
The MTV-friendly pop band OK Go specializes in low-tech, high-concept virtuosity, and the same can be said to describe its Pilobolus collaboration, “All Is Not Lost.” Well, except for the low-tech part: The troupe positions a video camera underneath what amounts to a massive glass tabletop to present all sorts of dizzying tableaux that are filmed from below and projected on hanging screens. The setup and breakdown may each take longer than the piece itself, but the resulting images — human kaleidoscopes, perspectival tricks that allow the Pilobolus members to defy gravity even more than usual — went over like gangbusters.
The newest of the six works, last year’s bird-themed “Branches,” hews fairly closely to the Pilobolus playbook: anthropomorphic manipulations of the body, jaw-dropping physicality, whimsical flourishes. As a series of largely ineffectual mating dances wind down, any concerns about the propagation of the species are put to rest by a clever tableau depicting the much-satirized “March of Progress” illustration. By this measure, the sight of a Pilobolus dancer standing tall and proud is meant to stand in for the culmination (so far) of human evolution. Sounds about right.
Eric Grode is the director of the Goldring Arts Journalism Program at Syracuse University and a regular freelance theater contributor to The New York Times.