Terpsichore, Tongue-in-Cheek

Pilobolus. It's the name of a barnyard fungus that shoots its ripe spoors to astonishing distances. It's also the name

Pilobolus. It's the name of a barnyard fungus that shoots its ripe spoors to astonishing distances. It's also the name of what may be the most extraordinary innovation in theatrical choreography since the advent of modern dance. And now, it's the title of a book of photographs that jostle the sight like a somersault.

It's all Dartmouth's fault. If a cross-country skier, a fencer-folk-dancer, and a pole-vaulter hadn't decided to give modern dance a whirl in a class there in 1970, chances are no one else would ever have come up with what the book's photographer Tim Matson calls "a blend of dance, gymnastics, mime, circus and sculpture." Since then, the original group has evolved into a brash, astonishing, stubbornly unclassifiable performance company of three men and two women, with a home base in Connecticut and a touring schedule which skims them halfway around the globe.

With the gut understanding of a friend who's been with them since they were "barnstorming around the northern country in a busted-up Volkswagen," as he recalls it, Matson has put Pilobolus on paper as no words can. Though Matson describes himself as "a farmer and a writer," he has the eye of a cinematographer--and like his subjects, evidently, the energy of an athlete. "When I'm photographing Pilobolus, I'm down on the floor or flipping, too--it's almost like a sport," he says.

The result is a book that's nearly as indescribable as its subject. Flipping through its pages (and these photographs don't look as though they expect to stand still), you have to keep reminding yourself that you're not looking at stray limbs tooled soft as putty and clumped together like topological pretzels, but at human beings with only two arms, two legs, and one torso apiece.

"They have an amazing ability to transform the body into something else," Matson says of Pilobolus. "Without knowing it at first, what they were looking for was a new visual language--something beyond words." They just may have found it. Because if this is dance (and Matson says they don't think of themselves as dancers), it's the first kind in which the members of the audience do not immediately refer to their own bodies in reacting to the movement on stage. Here, a single dancer's body is only one unit in a larger structure; the ambiguity of the final form frees the onlooker's eye from the insistent logic of ordinary anatomy.

Pilobolus also nudges one's normal sense of space into a frame of relativity. After all, can you swear up is really up when there are three people on stage with their feet pointing toward the ceiling?

But it's risky to theorize too much about Pilobolus. According to Matson, their choreography (always created collectively) proceeds more by intuition than by conceptualization. "Pilobolus goes straight to the heart; watching them, you can put your intellect away for a while," he says. And, both literally and figuratively, they're a refreshingly earthy bunch--"absolutely bawdy," says Matson, and "just as at home rolling around on the floor as standing up or in the air."

The spirit may be that of kids in a pillow-fight: zany, uninhibited, with an unerring sense of propriety's absurdity and no holds barred. "It's real, and it's natural--there's so much innate pleasure in it for them, which is contagious," says Matson. But don't be fooled. Once you've seen Pilobolus, or Matson's book, neither a dancer's body nor your own will ever look quite the same again.

Pilobolus, a book of photographs by Tim Matson, is published by Random House at $9.95.