Thursday, Jun. 21 & Friday, Jun. 22
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham

Pilobolus exempts itself from politics. The dance company wants you to escape the real world and have a good time for a couple of hours. It wants to give you a handful of chuckles and elicit some oohs and aahs in return. It operates in two distinct modes: hamming it up—exaggeratedly acting like animals, pantomiming to sound effects—or smoothing it out, showing off physical strength and skill at counterbalancing human bodies in muscular poses, lifts, and spins. That’s enough to send most people home impressed and happy, as Pilobolus seemed to with its annual visit to ADF Thursday night at DPAC.

But the stage space isn’t apolitical, and every Pilobolus piece on the program had a section or moment that shows how out of touch the company is with that fact. In Warp & Weft, a world premiere commissioned by ADF, three women move within and along the length of a long, flowing piece of red fabric. They flash through some lame feminine stereotypes, wadding the cloth into the forms of swaddled infants and scrubbing the floor on their hands and knees. But the worst moment is when the fabric is wrapped tightly over the head and shoulders of one woman (making the unmistakable image of a burqa) who is then held captive by the other two, who pull the fabric against her attempt to escape. It’s a chilling image of Muslim detention, immediately followed, without transition, by comical waddling around the stage to a chorus of duck calls. It’s not an absurd gesture; it’s an unconscious one.

Even in a work as time-tested as Gnomen, which debuted in 1997, there are questionable choices. In this all-male quartet, each man takes a turn being manipulated by the other three in sections that range from slow and sinewy to angular and gymnastic, from violent to meditative. In this performance, however, the lone black dancer among the four was chosen as the subject for the violent section. He’s bent, shoved down repeatedly, animalized. He walks hunched over, tries to escape, and is retrieved. Eventually he straightens and bows his head to the white trio, as if acknowledging his submission to their power, before the dance can continue.

You don’t have to be a racial-justice champion to see the bad politics here—but the company’s artistic directors never seem to see it. Although the dancers aren’t necessarily physically interchangeable, any awareness of the political moment might have led a director to choose a different dancer in the company to play the part of the subject in that section. Pilobolus’s lack of critical perspective on its own work is egregious.

It seems that, as far as Pilobolus is concerned, movement is just for physical pleasure and momentary entertainment. Granted, that pleasure is palpable. But they never miss a chance at an easy laugh, and they take pains to hold their most physically difficult poses until they get an audible reaction from the audience. They can’t even let you leave the auditorium with the last image of the final piece. Instead, the dancers dump water on the stage and slide across the wet surface on their butts, vamping for hoots and hollers.

It is appropriate, however, that they chose to do their slip ‘n’ slide party to the David Byrne and Brian Eno recording “America Is Waiting,” standing together to wave madly at the audience beneath the lyric: “No will whatsoever/No will whatsoever/Absolutely no integrity.” Pilobolus looks good but thinks little and has nothing to say, so there’s no real reason to watch.