A Beginner's Modern Dance Class Leads to the Founding of Pilobolus

The experimental dance company, which has created over 120 dance works, is named for a fungus grown in cow manure.

The Pilobolus Dance Theater developed from a class project in Alison Becker Chase's beginner's modern dance class in 1971 at Dartmouth College. The founders of the group are Moses Robb Pendleton, Jonathan Wolken, and Steve Johnson, all members of the Dartmouth Class of 1971. Chase chose her students to represent Dartmouth for a symposium of modern dance in New York in 1971. Johnson chose to pursue a career in medicine upon graduating from Dartmouth, but he was replaced by Robby Barnett (Dartmouth 1972), Michael Tracy (Dartmouth 1973), and Lee Harris (Dartmouth 1973). The group officially became Pilobolus, named after a fungus grown in cow manure. Alison Chase and Martha Clarke joined the dance group as its first female members.

Pilobolus' first touring performance was at Goddard College in late summer 1971. That fall they were the opening act at a Frank Zappa concert at Smith College, where they danced to music composed by Dartmouth professor Jon Appleton. They continued dancing on the college circuit, performing at Bennington, Middlebury, Hampshire, Goddard, and Dartmouth Colleges, as well as the University of Maine. Pilobolus debuted in New York at the Nikolais-Louis Theatre. The company gained a larger following from their participation in the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College in 1974. PBS also made a film about the group titled "Pilobolus & Joan" in 1974. In 1977, the company debuted on Broadway to a production by Pierre Cardin. They quickly gained international fame and began touring throughout the world. While Pilobolus currently has a repertoire of over one hundred dances, its most famous include: "Ciona," "Monkshood Farewell," "Untitled," "Day Too," "Shizen," "Walklyndon," among others. The Pilobolus Dance Theater performs a style of dance which is a fusion of gymnastics, slapstick, modern dance, and humor. 

Today, the Pilobolus Dance Company is based in Washington Depot, Connecticut, and consists of four major branches. Pilobolus Dance Theatre is the six person touring dance company. The Pilobolus Institute is the educational program, and Pilobolus TOO is a second dance company, touring independently and with the Institute. Pilobolus Creative Services is the administrative arm of the company, coordinating commercial, publicity, and artistic affairs. 2008 marked the thirty-seventh year for Pilobolus, a group that has received the Samuel L. Scripps Award from the American Dance Festival in 2000 and the Berlin Critics Prize. Pilobolus has also been featured in Dance in America and inspired a spin-off company, Momix.

Read more from Dartmouth Library

Image courtesy of the Rauner Special Collections Library


VIDEO: Two Pilobolus dancers perform "Symbiosis" at a TED conference in 2005.


VIDEO: World premier of the company's Hapless Hooligan in "Still Moving" at Dartmouth's Moore Theater in 2010