Bodies move in mysterious ways when they belong to Pilobolus dancers. Their muscles teem with incredible strength. They can appear weightless as if floating above a stage, and they twist with mesmerizing dexterity. During a concert there's always a moment when you find yourself completely astounded by what the human body can do.
Call it a "Pilobolus-perience."
Pilobolus will perform at the Morrison Center on March 2, bringing to the stage physically raw and visually dazzling explorations of the human experience at the convergence of art, science and nature.
"The job of a Pilobolus dancer is to expand who they are as a person and within that contain as many characters as possible," says Pilobolus associate artistic director Matt Kent, who spoke from the company's headquarters in Washington Depot, Conn.
Those characters can be anything from primordial creatures to sophisticated machines to children at play.
The company operates three distinct entities. There are Pilobolus Dance Theatre, a performance group that creates and performs new work, and Pilobolus Institute, which creates educational programs for schools and businesses.
The third, Pilobolus Creative Services, is how the company reaches further into the world. It provides movement design and production for commercial enterprises. Recent projects by this group include developing the zombie movement for the TV show "The Walking Dead," innovative car commercials for Ford and other manufacturers, and customized performances such as the one that wowed the audience at the 79th Oscars.
Today, we call Pilobolus a dance company - but that's only because dance caught up.
A group of mostly nondancers founded Pilobolus. Robby Barnett, Martha Clarke, Lee Harris, Moses Pendleton, Michael Tracy and Jonathan Wolken were students at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire when they met in an elective modern dance class taught by Alison Becker Chase.
Wolken named the company after a fungus that his father was researching in his biophysics lab. That coalesced the company's relationship to science and biology that still infuses much of the context of the work.
At the time it was a radical idea that untrained dancers could found a dance company, let alone one of the most unique companies in the world, Kent says.
"It was a connection to some of the subversive ideas that came out of the 1960s and to what we now call 'outsider arts,' " he says.
By 1980, Pilobolus had become a phenomenon, performing on Broadway and on television, and earning international awards and acclaim.
They were like a freight train running through culture, says Ballet Idaho artistic director Peter Anastos, who co-founded another cultural earthquake in the 1970s, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. His all-male dance company that performed classical parodies also came out of a subversive sensibility of the decade to skewer the ballet world.
"Then Pilobolus just came roaring out of left field, completely unexpected, truly something new and different," Anastos says. "They were just doing the oddest, weirdest, most compelling and fascinating work. They were fabulous, unique, indescribable."
By the mid-1980s, a few of the founding members had peeled off. Harris left in 1975. Clarke left in '78, followed by Pendleton in 1983. The two of them created the company Momix, which performed at the Morrison Center in 2012.
The remaining four members continued to run the company as a community. They didn't hire their first managing director, Itamar Kubovy, until 2004. Chase left in 2006 to start her own company, leaving Barnett, Tracy and Wolken at its artistic helm. Wolken died in 2010.
The subversive quality that founded the group is still at work, drawing unique movers into the company - and even some trained dancers.
For example, Kent's personal movement style is grounded in martial arts. Wolken invited him to audition after he took a Pilobolus workshop. He joined the company in 1996 as a performer and went on to become part of the second generation of its artistic leaders. He's never taken a formal dance class.
The company works on an entirely different model than the rest of the dance world. For example: No morning ballet class.
"God, no," Kent says, laughing from the company headquarters. "Well, some dancers do take ballet to connect with their roots, but we're very careful with anything that influences our movement. We need to make sure it integrates."
Usually the dancers arrive at 9 a.m., and they each start their personal warm-up routine.
"We have one woman who does sword work, so she may be doing that. Others will be doing back flips. We get out mats and practice rolls or something," Kent says.
The audience will see some of that at the performance, Kent says. "We've taken out the curtain," so the dancers will be warming up on stage as the audience arrives.
Warm-up generally ends with a short open-ended improv that engages the "hive mind" of the company and gets everyone on the same page, Kent says.
From there, the work develops and evolves through improv, innovation, rehearsal and even performance. A piece isn't considered "done" for several years after its creation, Kent says.
"We don't really recognize premieres," he says. "That's just the first time an audience sees it. It takes about two years for it to mellow and clarify."
The choreography is so closely connected to the people who created it, any chance or shift in personnel changes the art.
"It's like jazz. When you get a new drummer, everyone has to do something different," Kent says.