At Jacob's Pillow, Pilobolus brings the outside in

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BECKET — Last year Jacob's Pillow director Pamela Tatge commissioned the dance/movement troupe Pilobolus to create a site-specific work to help kick off the Pillow's 85th season. The commission, "Branches," was designed to be performed on the Inside/Out stage that boasts as its backdrop the famous Berkshires landscape. This week the company returns with a full slate of performances in the Ted Shawn Theatre, presenting a program that includes a "reimagined" iteration of "Branches."

If you aren't among the initiated, Pilobolus specializes in idiosyncratic choreography that involves the company's uber-pliable, super-strong dancers morphing into seemingly impossible positions, often creating strange and beautiful images. The dancers are also liquidly acrobatic, and they arrive into these shapes by tumbling, rolling, crawling, either upon the floor or another body. Sometimes several dancers will twine together to form these living sculptures. Naturally, the copious lifting of other dancers requires a great deal of strength, but it's a balancing act that goes both ways: the lifted one's body is often perched on a small surface of the lifter's body, or may be angled out on a steep diagonal.

All of this, of course, is meant to be achieved artfully. Occasionally however, when a performer wavers, just a bit, it's an endearing reminder of their humanness. Suffice to say that these dancers have cores of steel, and, like most elite athletes, their overall physiques are in prime condition — and on display: their costuming often consists of briefs for the men and briefs and bras for the women. (And knee pads.)

Along with the buff bods, the company traffics in a good deal of braininess, and, zaniness. Though the curtain is already open and dancers are onstage, stretching and noodling around when the audience starts arriving, the program officially starts with "Eye Opening." a goofy primer on the evolution of sight that artistic directors Renee Jaworski and Matt Kent created earlier this year with the NPR show "Radiolab." That pre-show breaking of the fourth wall is further underscored when an audience member (hi Luke!) is brought onstage. In comic contrast to their usual scant costuming, the dancers's bodies are enveloped in coveralls while their heads are obscured in giant eyeball helmets. There's a groaning visual pun in all of this: they are the "pupils" of Luke, playing the role of the teacher. Hi- and low-tech devices (live projection; giant props; cue cards) and a lot of running around create a gently madcap scene. Though the piece meanders and rather quickly loses focus (yes) it's an innocuous lark.

In "Warp & Weft," also co-created by Jaworski and Kent, in collaboration with Pilobolus' creative director Mark Fucik, the three female dancers are also frequently covered neck to toe, but this time by a giant piece of red fabric. With her loosened hair creating a glorious halo around her head, Krystal Butler begins and ends the piece tucked in the center of the fabric, a kind of divine shaman flanked by her priestesses (Heather Favretto and Casey Howes). At times mysterious, frisky, wistful, the women sometimes seem to be enacting sacred rituals or enjoying a woozy pajama party.

A sense of ritual also envelops the four men in the 1997 "Gnomen,"choreographed chiefly by Pilobolus co-founders Robby Barnett and the late Jonathan Wolken. Each man goes through a trial in which he requires supports, or a test, in which he must grapple with the others. The tall Jacob Michael Warren struggles to walk, so the others, in essence, help him fly instead. Zachary Eisenstat, conversely, is upended, turned like a corkscrew, mock-beaten. Antoine Banks-Sullivan, often curved over, is gently ricocheted, his head butting into another's stomach. Nathaniel Buchsbaum at time seems like a fetus suspended in utero, and indeed, the others cradle and rock him, sometimes his entire body hooked onto their feet. Bells or gongs signify beginnings and endings to the trials, and the men bow gently, somberly to each other, indicating that their bond is intact.

Though there are moments of tension and even despair in Michael Tracy's 2001 duet "Symbiosis" (made in collaboration with Jaworski and Otis Cook), there's little ambiguity about the relationship that Favretto and Warren are portraying. These are lovers, and — as the title suggests, as the beautifully intimate choreography illustrates — their match is both organic and harmonic. Though the two experience some strife (at various times each tightens up and has to be "pried open" by the other) they are mostly linked by an incandescent affinity. Favretto runs round and round Warren, holding his hand; he curves and bends his great torso side, back, and side, so that they never have to let go.

The indoor version of "Branches" is still full of nature and joy. And at Thursday afternoon's show, at least, Mother Nature herself helped set the mood, providing live thunder to the mixed soundtrack which is rife with the music of wildlife. (I wondered why the big barn doors at the back of the stage weren't opened up. Perhaps that storm?) The dancers sometimes embodied the wonderful, often-outlandish recorded birdsongs and calls; a squawk became a chest and arms spiked out, a trilling coo became a cascading shiver down a torso. Whereas the other pieces on the program were full of impressive pictures, "Branches" and "Symbiosis" seemed to have less stasis, more moments of flowing movement. The more these lovely dancers move with abandon, the more connected are the dances.

Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@gmail.com

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