Pilobolus premieres, Joyce Theater, New York

Pilobolus has always been about illusion-making: lending the human body fantastical form. Until recently, the spirit of the ’60s that spawned the four-decade-old collective from the New England outback had a tight grip on that vision. Their pieces celebrated the liberating magic of transformation more than the do-it-yourself means. But technological advances in illusionism (Photoshop, digital animation) plus the influx since 2007 at Pilobolus of outside collaborators whose medium is not always the body have shifted the troupe’s emphasis. Now it revels in its hardy retro-ness.

Skyscrapers, a film-dance concoction low on tech and high on charm, repeats last year’s success with the YouTube lad band OK Go (1.3m views later, that first effort, All is not Lost, returns to the Joyce). In the video version of Skyscrapers, a man and woman tango languorously across a Los Angeles streetscape that shifts colours, as do the couple’s outfits, with the song’s mood. In the live dance adaptation, various couples took turns tangoing across the film-strip landscape, which stopped and started in time with the evanescing hues. Funny and romantic, Skyscrapers captures how songs heard while driving desolate streets can serve as a defining soundtrack to the life seen outside.

Collaborations always involve compromise. With Skyscrapers, the Piloboli injected a spirit of goofy fun into the proceedings but left the tango mainly intact. The premiere Azimuth took advantage of no one’s talents – neither the Pils’ shapeshifting prowess nor guest Michael Moschen’s juggling wizardry. A MacArthur “genius”, Moschen combines basic ideas about rhythm, shape and pattern to mesmerising effect. What he might have done with these body jugglers! Instead, the athletes cavorted about with balls and rings and poles in a faint imitation of his craft.

The thoughtful Moroccan-Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, a Sadler’s Wells associate artist, takes the art of collaboration as seriously as he does dance. For Automaton, he translates Pilobolus’s organic metaphors into more pressing terms. If the hippy 1960s returned the body to nature, the 21st century has brought it into ever closer harmony with machines. To music that wheezed and gasped like an endearing human-emulating contraption, the dancers embodied creakily evolving robots. These protean automatons developed feelings, then romantic inclinations, communal aspirations (this being Pilobolus) and finally homicidal tendencies, which did for them.

Cherkaoui lays out this collective Bildungsroman by means of mirrored surfaces and enclosures. Hanging at a slant overhead, a mirror as wide as the stage offered a bird’s-eye, backside view of the players. Meanwhile, man-sized mirrors brought the robots to self-consciousness. When these pallets were set up as barricades, we could only catch upstage activities via reflection. But then we missed the movement in the flesh before us. Automaton forced us to choose between the actual and the virtual. It uncannily represented what people are most blind to: the present.

Until August 11, www.joyce.org

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