The best moment of Darkness and Light, Basil Twist’s new collaboration with Robby Barnett and Jonathan Wolken for Pilobolus, comes right at the start. A number of people stand or crouch amid scattered machinery, pointedly staring at the audience. It’s long enough for a mental snapshot, but after a scrim lowers, concealing the scene, I rue my lack of photographic memory. Were they wearing caps and goggles, like long distance swimmers? Tights? They were bare-chested, right? And those were projectors, yes?
The piece unfortunately doesn’t go very far after that sly reveal, settling into mostly basic exercises in silhouette puppetry. A shadowy wedge grows into a figure’s waist. Creatures that appear like frothy doodles inhabit a sea blue scrim. A face morphs into a scary biting and licking machine. Nebula-like wisps dance across a starry field. Blobs consume other blobs and grow. The usual. In fact, the piece would be right at home in the repertory of Momix, founded by one of Pilobolus’ founders, Moses Pendleton. (Coincidentally, earlier this year Pendleton created a work for Diana Vishneva’s Beauty in Motion production that employed similar trompe l’oeuil exercises.)
After years of ascendant fame, Twist faces steep expectations. His Symphonie Fantastique (1999) must have set box office records for an off, off-Broadway show. And other works such as Dogugaeshi truly expanded what puppetry could do in every dimension, given the resources. He has also collaborated on a piece with Joey Arias at Here Arts Center, a production of Petrushka, and has had a hand in numerous other recent projects. But Darkness and Light, despite comprising many quickly paced scenes that hold the attention, seems more a step sideways than forward.
Pilobolus draws full audiences to the Joyce Theater for weeks each summer. They keep going back to see the physical invention, the wit and whimsy, the metered eroticism that reminds them of a corporeality most left behind long ago (clip embedded below). Yet many critics and dance aficionados look askance at the company, which can straddle lines of taste and commerce.
Yet another look yields phrases that might belong in a nouveau cirque or on a gymnastics mat, but are entered into and sealed with intelligent, polished details. The invention and defiance of logic displayed in pairs or compound lifts is astounding. They serve as reminders that we really don’t know the limits of our bodies’ potential, no matter how smart we think we are.
Last year, Pilobolus commissioned Inbal Pinto to create Rushes, a bittersweet, charming semi-narrative dance. (It will be performed again this season; info at the Joyce Theater Web site.) Pinto and Pilobolus seemed an incongruous pairing at first, but ultimately it showed both the company’s famous physicality as well as a refinement by the company that always exists, yet is not always evident in the rep. Basil Twist makes perfect sense on paper, but his collaboration – even though it involves peoples’ silhouettes – eschews the human touch, which is the heart and soul of Pilobolus.