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Center Stage

Beauty in a sandbox

11/4/2015

When the executive producer of Pilobolus tells me his dancers have “a sandbox attitude,” he says it proudly.

“We make all our work collaboratively,” explains Itamar Kubovy. “We’re always, in some way, talking to each other.”

Kubovy has helped create a number of the famed troupe’s pieces, and he was happy to walk me through the development of one, a dance to be featured at the Civic Center. Titled “On the Nature of Things,” the piece uses two men and a woman — extraordinary athletes, like everyone in Pilobolus. Its genesis came one day when, in the workshop outside New York, a few dancers set up a short column and clambered on top.

“It just looked cool,” Kubovy explained.

“Pilobolus.” Civic Center, Des Moines. Tues., Nov. 10, 7:30 p.m. www.desmoinesperformingarts.org.

“Pilobolus.” Civic Center, Des Moines. Tues., Nov. 10, 7:30 p.m. www.desmoinesperformingarts.org.

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Then, starting from those figures on a pillar, everyone began a process he calls “working backward.” They explored the possible meanings of the setup, the “classic relationships” that came to mind.

After all, says Kubovy, a dance has to amount to more than “a lot of bodies flipping around.” A performance demands “amazing visuals” and “great athleticism,”  he argues, but “at the same time it has to mean something. It has to speak in a human vernacular.”

As for “On the Nature of Things,” it wound up presenting a creation story, something like Adam, Eve and the Serpent. That’s how the creators see it, anyway, as the trio moves through astonishing contortions on a tiny raised platform accompanied by baroque vocal music. Still, the piece is new (a 2014 creation) and may go through further changes. Troupe members often come back from tour, or from some other venture — Pilobolus has turned up everywhere from “Sesame Street” to the Academy Awards — with fresh notions of what might “look cool.”

Not surprisingly, the current selection includes something brand new. “Wednesday Morning, 11:45” had its debut in June and still hasn’t played New York. The company continues to fine tune, and with that in mind, they travel light. The music is pre-recorded (though carefully engineered to the hall), and both the sets and the cast are kept small. In Des Moines, the performance will feature just eight dancers, all part of the top-flight Pilobolous group, the Dance Theater.

A number of pieces, however, put dancers alongside shadows cast on a screen. The effect creates extra players and even adds animals. A bird — or rather a woman whose shadow turns her into a bird — plays a part in “Wednesday Morning.”

If that sounds funny, it should.

“The piece has the structure and whimsy of a joke,” says Kubovy.

Making viewers laugh suits the rambunctious, “sandbox” spirit of a troupe founded at Dartmouth College in 1971. The name comes from a fungus, and isn’t that a joke, too? A dancing fungus?  Laughter and beauty come together for this company in a sweet, surprising fit.

“It’s right in our mission,” says Kubovy. “We reveal beauty where you least expect it.” CV

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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