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Thirty years ago, the image of the burly American football player was shaken up by a new addition to many players' training regimen: ballet. Though fans initially struggled to understand the connection between pirouettes and punting, the physical attributes required by both disciplines - balance, agility, coordination, strength - were soon recognized as a perfectly logical part of a football player's training schedule.
Fans of American dance company Pilobolus, currently on tour in Israel, won't be surprised to hear that the connection between dance and contact sports can work both ways. With a repertory that showcases startling feats of balance, strength, and coordination between dancers, Pilobolus has earned worldwide acclaim and proven a hit with Tel Aviv audiences during its first tour here in seven years. The company will perform in Haifa Monday and Tuesday before wrapping up its Israel visit with shows at the Jerusalem Theater Wednesday and Thursday.
With the company now celebrating its 35th year, Pilobolus dancers continue to use the unique mix of strength, grace and artistry that set the group apart from its very beginning. Named, according to its Web site, after a "sun-loving fungus" commonly found in barns and pastures, Pilobolus, like football, began as a male-dominated endeavor. With the exception of its earliest artistic contributor, Alison Chase, the original members of the group were men - students in a dance class at Dartmouth College, the Ivy League basis for Animal House and, in 1970, still an exclusively male institution. Barely older than the men she was teaching, Chase decided that encouraging students to create their own movements would be a more effective approach than simply teaching formal dance steps.
The result was a distinctive merging of muscular lifting and fluid physical movement, with acrobats' fearlessness and contortionists' flexibility added to the mix.
"It isn't easy to maintain the physicality you need for Pilobolus," says dancer Tamieca McCloud, speaking by phone from the Israeli Opera House Friday, moments before putting on her make-up and taking the stage for a show. "I do what I call cross-training - martial arts and other sports - so I can maintain my physicality to perform. That's probably what got me into the company in the first place."
A ballet student as a child, McCloud stopped dancing in high school to play softball and basketball, then switched to rugby in her first year of college. But she returned to her childhood pastime by taking a dance class as well, and was eventually won over by teachers who convinced her to major in dance. As part of a rotating set of Pilobolus dancers who perform across the US and abroad, McCloud said her return to Israel was based in part on the great experience she had on her previous trip here in 1998.
Tel Aviv audiences' response to the company's shows last week were also "fabulous," said Ras Mikey Courtney, a Pilobolus dancer since 2001. "The audiences have been really receptive to what we've been giving them."
What they've been given are four numbers stretching across nearly all of Pilobolus' performance styles and its history as a company. Climbing over and around each other even as they rely on the other dancers to hold them safely in the air, Pilobolus members say they share a trust resulting from years of teamwork and training.
"I think that in order to get hired by the company, you have to get rid of that trust issue," said Courtney. "There are certain pieces of the repertory that everyone who's ever been [in Pilobolus] knows. This particular group has never performed together on the stage, but it works out because the company works from a certain technical basis, and we're all working from that same experience."
The current tour, for example, is the first time that McCloud is performing in one of the pieces - a complicated choreography she had to learn in just three and a half days. "We worked on that first," she said, "doing some of the tricks so we could feel each other out. Some of the women who had done this piece in the past might have weighed a little more or less than me or had different proportions. Had it been another company it would have been more difficult."
The Israeli performances are something of a homecoming for Itamar Kubovy, Pilobolus' Jerusalem-born executive director. A Yale-educated director and producer with extensive experience in theater, Kubovy had also made a short film with Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand before starting work with Pilobolus in early 2004. He accompanied the group on a sightseeing trip to the Dead Sea on Sunday, and said he was pleased by the opportunity to visit Israel with the dancers.
"Each [Israeli] city has its own feel, and I think the company is getting a sense of that," he said in Tel Aviv. "It's a very ethnically diverse company, with a wide range of backgrounds, and I think they're getting a sense of the wide range of people's backgrounds in Israel. They're eating it up."