Holy Pilobolus!

Robert Whitman

The venerated dance troupe sets its gravity- and logic-defying twists, twirls, and aerials against Israel’s ancient landscape.

Pablo Picasso’s famous Family of Saltimbanques (1905) depicts a motley crew of tumblers in an arid, unpunctuated landscape. One of these, in harlequin costume, is taken to be the artist himself, and it has been said that circus performers were, for Picasso, a metaphor for artists in general: individuals who, in their eccentricity, stand on the margins, together but alone.

In its recent two-week tour through Israel, the ever-surprising Connecticut-based dance troupe Pilobolus took time out of the theater to riff, in the desert, on Picasso’s vision: A dancer in emerald green, held aloft atop a camel, arches her lovely arms and feet against the naked sky. In the foreground a muscular man glowers at the camera while holding the animal’s reins: He is Fred Flinstone cinched into an eighties Thierry Mugler red belt and a bathing cap. To one side three dancers cluster in a composition that suggests conversation, but a closer glance reveals that each is following his—or her—own trajectory. They are a vibrant, self-sufficient vision that challenges us to see the world—and art—anew.

This ability to “make it new” is, in fact, vintage Pilobolus. Founded by four Dartmouth graduates in 1971, the troupe has enthralled audiences with its daring and prowess, the breadth of its range, ever since. In its 37-year history, the company has performed more than a hundred shows a year in a total of 62 countries, appeared at the Oscars and in advertisements, and created the book The Human Alphabet.

Masters of reinvention, they often force us to ask where the parameters of the body lie. When two lithe creatures entwine in a glowing ball on the boulders of Jerusalem’s ancient walls, we can’t help but see this exotic new being as a comment upon or even, in some strange language, an answer to the perilous strife of that place. When two dancers in electric yellow form a graceful tower in a market’s vegetable aisle—surrounded by bemused shoppers, pale cabbages, vermilion peppers, and plastic bags the same color as their leotards—they seem to say quietly, “Stop. Look. It could be this way. Maybe, although we don’t see it, it is always this way.”

And again, when curled into the bonelike orifice of a window, like some madly colorful marrow, their bodies interwoven and overlapping, the dancers offer us, in the serenity of their expressions, both beauty and the promise of something beautiful: Who could help longing for what they have? Even when immobile, they give us an exuberant, weird, mirthful way of moving our unlikely world, of turning it upside down, of seeing it all over again. What more could one ask of art?

Pilobolus will be appearing June 30 to July 26 at the Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave., New York (212-242-0800; joyce.org).