Pilobolus Dance Theatre has never been a typical dance company. From its origins at Dartmouth College in 1971, its nonconformity and evolution are in its DNA and have enabled the company to flourish where it will — much like the sun-loving fungus after which it’s named.
The internationally acclaimed Pilobolus returns to Cincinnati to perform at the Aronoff Center this weekend as Contemporary Dance Theater’s Guest Artist Series finale for this season.
Evolution is necessary for survival, naturally, but Pilobolus makes an art form of it, constantly exploring new directions and collaborations while keeping a keen interest on the pulse of popular culture.
Even if you’re not a modern dance fan, you already might have seen Pilobolus. Maybe it was their viral video hit collaboration “All Is Not Lost” with the Power Pop group, OK Go in 2011. Or perhaps it was on TV: on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Oprah or an NFL telecast. Or maybe a Ford car commercial, or even the Academy Awards in 2007.
Pilobolus’ numerous commercial appearances might be atypical income sources for a dance company, but they benefit the group in ways beyond the financials.
“Working in the commercial world and in the business world has given us exposure to creative opportunities that we never would have found otherwise,” says Artistic Director/Co-founder Robby Barnett, speaking by telephone from the company’s home base in Washington Depot, Conn. “We get asked to do things we never imagined doing. In a way it’s like paid (research and development).” Sounds like art and business can, and must, mix.
“We’ve taken an artful approach to business and a businesslike approach to art,” Barnett says.
“We’ve found that, miraculously, different people will pay us to make art.”
Pilobolus continually explores and grows — not only through the creation of three or four new works a year, but by developing new movement vocabulary annually, based on the innate abilities of the dancers themselves. This approach sheds light on why dance training isn’t essential for Pilobolus performers.
“We don’t believe that technique and knowledge of history are necessary for the creation of good art or successful creative expression,” Barnett says. “While many of our dancers have had some dance training, for instance, it’s not remotely required to be a successful Pilobolus dancer.”
Naturally, athleticism is a requirement, Barnett says, as is a desire for hard work and living in a rural area and touring all over the globe during roughly half the year. Dancers also must “have a sincere desire to join with a group of people in a relatively intimate exchange over a long period of time,” he says.
Dancer and Communications Liaison Jun Kuribayashi, who’s been with the company since 2004, had been a competitive swimmer, a martial artist and a break-dancer.
“(Pilobolus) has a very organic process,” he says. “It’s a collaborative community of very like-minded, passionate, artistic people who just happen to have a passion for movement.”
Although the company has decades of repertory, the emphasis is on creating new work. In the Cincinnati program, audiences will see a pair of classic pieces from the 1970s alongside three very recent works, including a sneak preview of “Licks,” another collaboration with choreographer Trish Sie, with whom they joined forces for the OK Go video.
“We’ve always found it more interesting to make new work than to obsess about our older ones. Things tend to look old rather quickly to us,” Barnett says. “We like to show people we’re thinking about now.”
Unlike many ballet or dance companies, the dancers play a very active role in new work creation, so they become invested on many levels: emotionally, physically, even spiritually.
“When we get new company members in, the dynamic changes,” Kuribayashi says. “So it’s kind of an ever-evolving company, whether it be the aesthetic, or the movement, or the characters that come out of it.”
All these aspects stem from the company’s original founding approach of free, pure movement exploration.
“Certainly our origins came out of a certain ignorance — not knowing, for instance, what dance was supposed to be, which I think freed us to think of it our own way,” Barnett says. “I think we maintain a belief in the power of ignorance, of not knowing what you can’t do.”
PILOBOLUS Dance Theatre performs Friday and Saturday at the Aronoff Center’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater. Tickets: 513-621-ARTS or cincinnatiarts.org.