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New movement for Pilobolus

Published Aug. 27, 2005

It was a shot at the big time that most artists and entertainers can only dream of. And Pilobolus blew it.

In the early 1970s, Frank Zappa was performing at Dartmouth College, and a group of students from a dance class opened the concert with a weird performance piece. Zappa loved the piece and invited the group, which didn't even have a name yet, to go on tour with him.

"We said, "What? We can't do that, we have midterms coming up,' " recalled Pilobolus co-founder Moses Pendleton.

Zappa continued his tour, and the students went back to their dorm rooms to study for exams.

At the time they had no thoughts of becoming professional dancers, but over the next decades the group that eventually adopted the name Pilobolus would become one of the most influential forces in modern dance.

Pilobolus comes to Clearwater on Friday with a concert of four recent works. Among them is the world premiere of "Megawatt," a piece commissioned by Ruth Eckerd Hall.

"It's a very important event for us, because the number of presenters who commission works is very small and getting smaller," said Michael Tracy, one of the four artistic directors of Pilobolus. "Because the state agencies aren't funding the arts as much as they used to, these groups that commission works are becoming more and more important to American culture."

Besides "Megawatt," which Tracy calls "upbeat, kinetic and energetic," the program also includes "Wedlock," a more psychological, narrative piece; "Starcrossed," a treatment of Romeo and Juliet; and Tracy's own "Symbiosis," which he describes as "a very unusual duet."

Pilobolus has obviously evolved over the years, Tracy said, but it's still much the same company that opened for Zappa. Most of the founding members are still with the company as co-artistic directors. Pendleton, who left Pilobolus to form Momix, another highly influential modern dance company, is the one notable exception.

The works in Friday's concert will all be new to local audiences, but Tracy said they bear the unmistakable stamp of that student group from 35 years ago that never had any clue it would some day shake the very foundation of American dance.

In the early days, Pilobolus was intuitively creative, Tracy said, and the members' shortage of formal dance background led them to develop techniques and vocabularies no one had seen before. Pilobolus is now an American cultural institution, but its anarchistic early spirit still shines through in its dance.

"After 30 years, I would hope we've gotten better at it," Tracy said. "But we still have a recognizable footprint, and we hope that the reasons people have always been drawn to us are still there in the newer work."