Through July 7

I know there is supposed to be a first time for everything—but a disappointing Pilobolus performance? Before last night I hadn’t thought it possible. Life constantly assures us that everything changes and that is all that can be depended upon, and after 40 years, surely Pilobolus’ current members must be interested in experimenting outside their well-known style. But, but, but … it is a shame that the company is messing around with simulacra when they have those electrifying bodies.

American Dance Festival hosts Pilobolus each year, making happy audiences and making money at the same time. However, the audience in the Durham Performing Arts Center for Thursday night’s opening, although large, wasn’t so happy. The concert included five works—two were ADF-commissioned premieres—and all but one of them began with video on a small screen lowered from the grid.

The first one, which preceded the dance in Azimuth, wasn’t so bad. At the time, I thought it was a kind of prologue for the whole evening, signaling that the work would be about systems of movement, patterns of growth and organization, rather than about the kind of kinetic sculpture-building that Pilobolus has done so well for so long.

When the dance began—this was one of the new ADF commissions—it seemed at first that all was well. Under lighting that pooled bright downstage and glimmered coolly upstage, things of the universe were explored in a cirque-like manner. Using balls, circular hoops and long arced pieces of circles, references were made to astronomical relationships, the curvature of the earth, and such like. It was pretty; many of the sequences were smart, and some of the movement—but it just didn’t pack much punch. If this is to stay in repertory, it needs more work.

Curtain down, curtain up for Skyscrapers (2012)—and here comes the video screen again. This time, the video was of a very long, fast, motorcycle ride through early-morning Paris. We didn’t see the bike, only the onrushing scenery. But we heard its high whining engine as it worked up and down the gears. At the end, the engine switches off (hallelujah), the rider jumps off and rushes toward a young woman approaching the meeting place on foot. They embrace just as the sun touches her bright blond hair. Yuck.

Then we—the live audience—wait while the screen is raised. Urban backdrops appear, sliding along horizontally like flicked images on an iPad. Along a shallow space before them, amorous couples dance through, their clothes color-coded to the backgrounds. Since we had already been bludgeoned by video with the concept—the urgency of desire—it was pretty boring.

Curtain down, curtain up, video screen down. Groans heard in the house. The video for Sweet Purgatory (ADF-commissioned in 1991) showed huge flocks of small birds wheeling and swooping in a gray autumn sky, in the kind of mass migratory flight one rarely sees anymore. Much better than the motorcycle. But again, the video said it all, before the dance began. The actual dancing had some wonderful moments; really, it was quite beautiful overall. Without the video, it might have the wonder and amazement of birds in flight. As it was, the real dance felt like a rehash of the video.

The first, very short work, after intermission shows how Pilobolus’ explorations of new methods and forms can pay off years after the first experiments. The Transformation (no video—this time the title gives it all away) involves a huge shadow person behind a scrim, “manipulating” another dancer in front of it. It was funny and cute and there was no freaking video—but once again, a technical trick got between us the bodies.

The evening’s final work, another premiering ADF commission, was a collaboration among the Flemish-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Renée Jaworski of Pilobolus, and the dancers. Called Automaton, it involves six dancers, three large mirrored panels, and another very large mirror hung at an angle on the back wall. Many aspects are similar to Cherakaoui’s Babel, which was seen at Carolina Performing Arts last fall, but the work does not have Babel’s super powers. Unfortunately, Automaton also begins with video—this time images of things being destroyed in various ways. The last is a bottle of wine blowing up a microwave oven from the inside. The connection between the video images and the dance is not so overt here, which is a relief. The dancers move the mirrors around, and move in and out of range of the big mirror. Sometimes we see the reflections of things we can’t actually see; sometimes we see splintered and repeated images of bodies that we do see. It’s pretty clever, but it neither enlightens nor heartens.