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Pilobolus picks up the pace, with mixed results

Over the past three-plus decades, Pilobolus has carved a niche in the dance pantheon for its conceptual works grounded in a kind of slow motion, sculptural shape-shifting, often with anthropomorphic undertones. There was nary a trace of that aesthetic in last night's Celebrity Series program, which featured some of the company's most satisfyingly dance-like work in recent memory. Not that there was much movement out of the standard modern dance vocabulary.

Under the direction of Robby Barnett, Michael Tracy, and Jonathan Wolken, the Connecticut-based dance company's collaborative creative process is driven by inventive improvisation and what they call "creative play," which tends to generate work that is both imaginative and delightfully accessible. And Pilobolus' dancers, most relatively new, are surely adding fresh voices to the mix.

The program's first half was flat-out wonderful. The new "Aquatica," choreographed by Tracy with the dancers, is a charming, playful romp between a young girl (Annika Sheaff) and a sea sprite (Jenny Mendez). As Sheaff cupped a pretend sea shell to her ear, a quintet of dancers rolled back and forth, evoking the gentle ebb and flow of waves. Mendez seemed to emerge from out of the surf, eliciting a game of hide-and-seek. The other dancers became boulders on which the pair climbed, rivulets cascading off a rocky beach, crabs scurrying just beneath the surface, sea creatures that lifted them aloft until Mendez was, in the end, absorbed back into the cresting surf.

Mendez and Manelich Minniefee gave a gorgeous performance of Tracy's moving 2001 "Symbiosis," which explored the delicate balance of mutual need in a relationship that was sensual and primal yet without a trace of sexuality. It was instead a study in vulnerability and trust portrayed through the organic physicality of intricate partnering and careful balances. Mendez perches on Minniefee's shoulder like a bird or dives into his arms, encircling his body with her own. He seesaws her up and down and spins her, before hoisting her into the air in an exquisite lift, cradling her curved body high above his head. The most poignant gesture is traded back and forth -- one curls into a ball or folds inward only to be gently pried apart by the other. "Symbiosis" is grace in movement and tone.

Wolken's 1974 solo "Pseudopodia," the oldest work in the program, is a virtuosic display contrasting starkly angled balances with liquid rolls and tumbles. One moment Jun Kuribayashi was like tensile steel in sharp-edge profile. The next he was a liquid blur, rolling in vivid motion like a pool of mercury dancing in the palm of your hand.

The evening's second half was less successful. Wolken's new "Memento Mori" is a comic contrivance about two old people who relive the feisty courtship of their youth. Sheaff and Andrew Herro are terrific physical comedians, with excellent timing and vibrant stage presence. But the work gets too silly too quickly and stays that way far too long.

Wolken's 2004, punk-flavored "Megawatt" plays like drug-fueled tag-team wrestling, with a lot of high-energy, high-decibel antics -- jiggling, shaking, skittering, crawling on all fours, running madly, and crashing to the floor. There's one spectacular duet and some great unison rolls, but it never goes anywhere.

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