Modern dance being the large, diverse and interesting place it is, you would naturally expect there to be some disagreement on the merits of individual companies–even those at a prestigious festival like the American Dance Festival. Had you kept your ears open last week on Duke’s East or West Campus, in certain Ninth Street bistros, or a number of other places around the Triangle last week, you wouldn’t have been disappointed.

Tuesday night, a group of ADF first-timers exulted at Francesca’s, effervescing about a group that really opened their horizons. Thursday, a more experienced–and possibly just a bit more jaded–crew groused about the same old stuff from a group one later categorized as one of the dinosaurs of modern dance. Saturday, children laughed and clapped throughout an hour-long program, constituting the ADF’s most vocal and responsive audience of the season. Afterward, families spoke warmly about the experience on the grass outside Duke Chapel. For a number of them, it was the kids’ first experience with modern dance.

The problem? All three of them were talking about the same company: Pilobolus Dance Theater.

Pilobolus has been an ADF mainstay since 1976. Like Paul Taylor, they’re invariably invited back to ADF annually. Unlike Taylor, they stay a whole week, taking up two valuable performance slots.

And every year different people raise the same pointed question:

What are they still doing here?

“I don’t know if I hate Pilobolus,” a dance teacher observes in confidence last Saturday. “I’m just over seeing them at ADF. I feel they’re outdated. From a dancer’s perspective, it’s old news.”

Her perception’s hardly unique. The same point of view is echoed the night before by a younger dance student at a Ninth Street bistro. Her words are short, but hardly sweet: “Modern dance has moved on. Pilobolus hasn’t.” One ADF faculty member leaves a concert early, after observing, “I think I’ve seen each one of those moves in at least five Pilobolus pieces”–which still beats the other faculty members who don’t show up to begin with. It becomes something of a subtheme for Pilobolus’ week at ADF. “I have to see them,” one explains, “a friend of mine is in it.” Among the older dancers, it’s the attendance, not the absence, that needs to be excused.

It’s harder for Ryuji Yamaguchi to criticize the group. “Pilobolus was the reason I started dancing,” he says. “I was a wrestler. My wrestling coach gave me their video and I said ‘I could do that,’ because we actually do a lot of that kind of weight sharing in Japan.”

As our conversation continues, Yamaguchi speaks to perceived strengths and weaknesses in each work. He found merit in the world premiere, Wedlock, and Star-Cross’d. But his analysis is still ultimately unsparing.

“I think that the older pieces had a better blend somehow. The lifts seemed more like a piece of the package, they seemed inevitable.” He pauses. “I’ve seen a lot of Pilobolus and I see a lot of the same lifts, done frequently and in a similar fashion. A lot of times I can’t reason why.”

Then there was 2001’s Monkey and the White Bone Demon, a children’s piece based on a 16th century Buddhist story. “That, I was sort of offended by, because I know the cultural context of it.” Larissa Thomas is on cloud nine while waiting for sorbetto at Francesca’s, a longtime redoubt for ADF after-concert crowds. She and friends Laurence Beby and Cayte Connell are bubbling about the rep concert they just saw on Tuesday night, excitedly trading views and thoughts on how to play with what they’ve all just learned.

“I just keep on picturing what it would be like to dance up in the air like that the entire time,” she says, “just sort of this disconnected feeling from the floor, but at the same time pulling energy from it.”

“It feels so–like it feels on air, like floating, like clouds,” she says. “I’m thinking of all these clouds just shifting all over the place.”

Molly Granda, one of the children at the Saturday show, knows why she liked The Brass Ring best of all. “Because they did those tricks,” she says. “The funny walks.” But outside, little Hannah Thomas Gettes says, “I’m a little bit sad and a little bit worse.” Why? “Because it was a little bit scary for me.” Though her sister, Sophia, claims she wasn’t frightened, the dark room and the loud noises from the drums in Tsu-Ku-Tsu were a bit much to take.

The Pilobolus concert was the first modern dance concert any of the kids had ever gone to.

Hannah was also worried that the dancers were going to fall. Ironically, Thursday’s audience for Star-Cross’d experienced the same emotion, as Matt Kent’s leg visibly trembled for several agonizing seconds, as he hung upside down between two pieces of fabric stretching from the fly space to the stage. His leg maintained enough tension in the fabric to keep him from plummeting. But asymmetry was noticeable on more than one occasion during Tuesday’s repertory concert as well.

When viewing Saturday’s show in a roomful of children, I found myself noticing the amount of comedic slapstick violence on stage.

Is there common ground for such a range of views on Pilobolus? Have they truly “run out of ideas and run out of time,” as a former ADF student put it? Are they truly of no further use to anyone? Or are instructors, teachers and students embarrassed about their own roots rushing to put something valuable behind them–and everyone else?

This week: As I watched the opening of Pascal Rioult’s Home Front, the beginning section of his celebrated “Ravel Project,” at first I thought that the comparisons linking his work with that of fellow Martha Graham student and descendent Paul Taylor had been too charitable. Indeed, at times Rioult seemed to be all but channeling the senior choreographer–but arguably without adding appreciably to Taylor’s aesthetic.

Lyrical lines occasionally inspired or interrupted by pedestrian movement; small groups whose camaraderie, conflict, situations and characters arise, paper-thin at times, out of nowhere and just as rapidly–and inexplicably–return; frequently exquisite form and motion: Which of these has not been regularly observed in Taylor’s works in recent years? And with such abundance, why need anyone else reiterate them?

Then I saw Wien, the project’s second movement. I had my answer.

Yes, they do indeed waltz in Vienna. But the moves are executed in vicious circles from which some momentarily break free. And closer examination reveals that a number of the partners don’t have their hands around each other’s shoulders: They’re going for the throat instead.

The murders are casual, and the murdered are frequently women, who seem to be flung around at points like dishrags. But just as certainly as they all fall down, they return, over and over, for another round in a dance that never ends between abused and abusers. I must therefore respectfully disagree with Ms. Kisselgoff of The New York Times and Mr. Ulrich of the San Francisco Chronicle: Though the specific ghosts in question may differ, ballrooms–and audiences for that matter–just don’t get much more haunted than this.

Will we see anything approaching the psychodrama and social criticism of Wien in Durham? Hard at this point to say. We know that Rioult followed his suite to Ravel with a similar multi-work project based on Stravinsky. Advance word from the field has the opening Veneziana, set to the composer’s Pulcinella Suite, as a light, Tayloresque work depicting a carnival in Venice. Black Diamond, set to Stravinsky’s Duo Concertante, is a duet for two women isolated in two spotlights on an otherwise dark stage.

Betwixt is the world premiere of Rioult’s Firebird, to the famous ballet suite of the same name. Given the choreographer’s striking revision of classics (including Ravel’s Bolero, which closes the concert at ADF), it will be curious to find out how Rioult’s vision differs from the one Robert Weiss put on stage earlier this season with the Carolina Ballet.

Thursday, ADF/Scripps honoree Maguy Marin fights the power by presenting the U.S. premiere of Les Applaudissements ne se Mangent Pas (One Can’t Eat Applause), a controversial work about the exploitation of Latin America. EndBlock