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Dance review: Pilobolus Dance Theatre at Carpenter Center

October 3, 2010 |  4:00 pm

The Carpenter Performing Arts Center kicked off an adventurous 2010-11 dance season Friday night with Pilobolus Dance Theatre on the bill and Parsons Dance and David Dorfman Dance upcoming. The sold-out house –- its well-raked comfortable seats affording excellent sight lines -– buzzed with community energy anticipating a fun evening.   

Then, alas, the show began. Pilobolus, the versatile and zany, rough-and-tumble modern dance troupe now nearly 40 years old, strayed so far from its mission that if it were a corporation it would need to hire a branding consultant. Promising an evening of “imaginative and athletic creative collaboration,” the feisty company’s endearingly strong performers toiled well but ineffectually. Choreography was the main culprit, but so-so production values also contributed to the tepid dance journey.

Of the five pieces, only “Megawatt” (2004), the program closer, attained the high-voltage (pun intended) physicality hearkening Pilobolus of yore. The primary architect, troupe founder Jonathan Wolken (who died in June at age 60), dug deep for ingenious invention to reflect the seductive, percussive rock score by Primus, Radiohead and Squarepusher.

“Megawatt” blasted off with six dancers, regressed to convulsive inchworms, marching on stage fully prone on their backs: a parade propelled by gluteus maximus. Flipping like sausages to their bellies, they pressed forward with youthful energy. Their occupation of the stage's ground space then exploded into jagged jumps.  

A pity that the West Coast premiere of “Contradance” failed to replicate “Megawatt’s” integrity. Renee Jaworski and Matt Kent team-choreographed the dance set in a hillbilly milieu, percolating on Dan Zanes’ bluegrass-derived music.

A white rocking chair acted as central prop as a stranger entered a clannish community. The outsider (Jun Kuribayashi) circled the stage in a weird Groucho Marx crouch. Dressed, to this viewer’s eye, in a beret-topped French sailor costume, he wooed a local lass (Eriko Jimbo) clad in red headscarf and cowboy boots. The two lovers, standing, rocked on the chair. After the locals gave the boy a nasty beating, the dance, thank goodness, was over.

“Untitled,” an iconic Pilobolus work associated with multimedia choreographer Martha Clarke, explored Victorian gender conventions. This work from 1975 has men who are nude lurking beneath the ladies’ long petticoated skirts  — a totally tasteless distraction.

Set to soporific hotel lobby music, “Gnomen” (1997) slowly explored balancing feats by four men in black swim trunks. The dance ended strongly, with a Christ-like image rising to heaven.

“Walklyndon” (1971), a much less amusing version of Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks,” added little value.

Pilobolus’ challenge is its own making. Having pioneered a formulation devoted to dance athleticism, it now operates in denial that others have advanced the form. The L.A. market is very familiar with  Cirque de Soleil, and a new production is soon to encamp at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood. Just last weekend, Project Bandaloop trod the Orange County Performing Arts Center’s external wall. Brooklyn-based STREB combines sheer physical daring with high-tech design. Even L.A.’s own Diavolo Dance Theater exceeds the down-home sensibility that was on display in Long Beach Friday night. Dear to our hearts as this modern dance institution may be, Pilobolus needs to pick up its game to regain its edge.

-- Debra Levine

Pilobolus. Smothers Theatre, Pepperdine University, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, (310) 506-4522, 8 p.m. Tuesday: $50. Also Granada Theatre, 1214 State St., Santa Barbara, (805) 893-3535, 8 p.m. Thursday: $21-$53.

[Updated: An earlier version of this review said that the company updated its work called "Untitled"  by performing in the nude. In fact, the 1975 piece was conceived in the nude and is performed that way, though at times presenters have opted for the dancers to cover up with dance belts.]

Photo: Pilobolus performing "Contradance" in New York in July. Credit: Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty Images