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The Plain Dealer, Zachary Lewis  |  January 29, 2015

Pilobolus set to share unique creative vision and methods with DanceCleveland audience

CLEVELAND, Ohio Never mind that he directs Pilobolus, one of the most successful modern-dance companies in history. Robby Barnett simply doesn't care for dance all that much.

So little do he and his troupe, en route to Playhouse Square Saturday on the DanceCleveland series, have in common with others, so unusual are their methods and output, Barnett doesn't even follow dance at large.

"For me," he said from his home in rural Vermont, "it's only about the psychological engagement. The medium itself is just something I fell into."

There's a method to what may sound like madness in that statement, and a fortuitous use of the phrase "fell into." For what has set Pilobolus apart since 1971 is the way it creates new work: without choreographers (usually), through play and the exploration of physical ideas.

Where most troupes fulfill or re-create the vision of a single artist, Pilobolus operates collaboratively, sometimes partnering with figures from other disciplines. What's more, the dances it produces tend to rest not on messages or stories but on fresh means of interacting and athletic feats.

"We're simply interested in the ways people touch each other," Barnett explained. "Our work is a manifestation of a social process. It comes from being in each other's arms."

Just how well this works will soon be abundantly clear. When the company, founded by Dartmouth College gymnasts, arrives here Saturday, it will do so bearing a program reflecting all sides of its distinctive personality.

"On the Nature of Things," for instance, is pure Pilobolus, a flesh-and-blood paean to ancient sculpture, performed on a narrow column. Similarly, "Sweet Purgatory" deploys dancers in both active and passive roles to evoke a feeling of suspended time and space.

What comes of Pilobolus welcoming others into the mix will be evident in two works, "All Is Not Lost" and "The Inconsistent Pedaler." The former, a video collaboration with rock band OK Go, imagines dance as viewed through a kaleidoscope, while the latter, created with author Etgar Keret and filmmaker Shira Geffen, strives for that rarest of dance virtues: humor.

Rarer still is the opportunity presented by the fifth and final piece on the program, "Untitled 2015," a work in progress slated for premiere later this year. Through that, patrons may witness the troupe's creative process in action.

Whether or not the piece endures remains to be seen. One thing's for certain, however, even at this early stage: It already has at least a few fans.

Barnett may not bother keeping up with the Joneses, but he's avidly interested in what his own dancers think. In fact, they're his most reliable critics. When they're satisfied with a new piece, he knows it's ready for the world.

"By working as a group, we're our own audience," Barnett said. "Because we have to like what we're doing, we know we're always starting with things that are fundamentally interesting."

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