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Dartmouth Professor Brings Pilobolus to DVD

  • Jeffrey Ruoff, a documentary filmmaker, stands outside the Hop at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H., on August 6, 2013. <br/><br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Jeffrey Ruoff, a documentary filmmaker, stands outside the Hop at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H., on August 6, 2013.

    Valley News - Sarah Priestap

  • Jeffrey Ruoff, a documentary filmmaker, stands outside the Hop at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H., on August 6, 2013. <br/><br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

Jeffrey Ruoff didn’t plan on making a dance documentary.

It was the ethos, collaborative nature and unlikely history of the Pilobolus dance troupe, said Ruoff, a Dartmouth film professor, that led him to film their story.

Now, after nearly a year of being presented at film festivals around the country, the 38-minute video, Still Moving: Pilobolus at 40, will be released on DVD within the month.

The dance troupe’s 40th anniversary, and its 2011 return to Dartmouth for a performance and community dance workshop made this an opportune time.

“They’re still kind of an outsider group and that drew me to them,” Ruoff said. “Is this dance? Is this theater? Is it gymnastics? They broke the rules of dance to make something new.”

Indeed, Pilobolus doesn’t take easily to descriptions. The company, named after a barnyard fungus, gives performances that seem to consist more of bodies than dancers. In their own ever-changing style, the troupe’s seven main dancers writhe and flow in a give-and-take of grace and raw physicality.
A recent New Yorker review summarized a performance this way: “Plants, animals, all manner of objects and suggestions of objects arise and then dissolve, and at the end of an evening you feel as though you’ve glimpsed many worlds.”

Filming for 11 days in the summer of 2011, Ruoff worked to capture innovative teamwork and creativity. He gathered footage at the troupe’s headquarters in Washington Depot, Conn., on the road and in Hanover, at rehearsals and the community workshop. Ruoff received initial funds for the project from Dartmouth, as well as contributions from private donors and the Byrne Foundation.  

Pilobolus came together in 1971, when a few athletes at the then all-male Dartmouth College took a dance class on a whim. With no previous dance experience, they didn’t adhere to traditional dance, but developed their own art form as they experimented with the body’s flexibility and motion. The hobby stuck. After they graduated, a group of seven dancers struck out on their own, renting an apartment in Norwich and choreographing dances for local performances.

Ruoff documents this unorthodox history through archival footage, interspersing interviews with the remaining founders, Michael Tracy and Robbie Barnett.

In part, the film is an effort to capture the evolution and vision that has kept Pilobolus relevant over four decades.

Ruoff films a variety of different dances, the “elegiac quartet” of Pilobolus’ dance Gnomen to Walklyndon, which Ruoff explained, “builds up from the lowest common denominator of walking.”

The film also features an interview with Art Spiegelman, known for his graphic novel Maus, who collaborates with Pilobolus to bring his talents as a graphic artist to the stage. In 2011, he created a whimsical backdrop for the silhouetted dancers seen in three sold-out shows at the Hop.

The documentary is “a combo of live-action footage and recollection with directors and younger dancers, as well as archival footage and photos,” Ruoff said. The company’s development and progression is captured as both the individual dancers and the directors gradually learned to use their talents and stretch their boundaries.

Ruoff is a film historian and documentary filmmaker who has co-authored a book and contributed chapters to five others. His anthology, Virtual Voyages: Cinema and Travel, was published in 2006 by Duke University Press. He has made several videos, including The Last Vaudevillian and Hacklebarney Tunes: The Music of Greg Brown.

Information about ordering the film can be found at www.pilobolusfilm.com/dvd.

Katie Jickling can reached at katiejickling@gmail.com.