The Magic Of Pilobolus

Troupe Showcases Modern Dance At Its Most Innovative

What is Pilobolus? The official definition is a sun-loving fungus that lives in cow dung.

But Pilobolus is also the name of a dance company that has mixed inventiveness with humor and thrived - even with the name - for more than 30 years.

Pilobolus started as an experimental troupe of Dartmouth students back in 1971, and they've broken all the rules, with great success, ever since.

They call themselves "the dance company for those who don't like dance... and for those who do." Correspondent Lesley Stahl reports.

60 Minutes went to their rehearsal studio in rural Connecticut and asked them to show us how they do it.

Pilobolus' signature is the entangling of bodies – in this case, they formed something that looked like a living sculpture. They called this "The Totem."

They employ the laws of physics to come up with something that seems impossible. In one example, a man is supporting the weight of three people.

They create movement that is hard, and hard to categorize. You're not going to see "Swan Lake" at a Pilobolus performance. Most dance is somewhat feminine – some would say effete. But Pilobolus has never been that.

Pilobolus has a repertoire of 85 original works, with styles ranging from playful to intense to gravity defying. But it's definitely not a typical dance company.

After all, what typical dance company would name itself after a fungus? Perhaps one started by accident by a group of Ivy League college students in the early '70s. Michael Tracy, Jonathan Wolken and Robby Barnett met 33 years ago at Dartmouth, back when it was all male and the inspiration for "Animal House."

It was an unlikely place for a dance class. But in the fall of 1970, Dartmouth offered one, taught by Alison Chase, then just 24. She says a lot of guys saw it as an easy "A."

What was it like to try to teach these guys how to dance? "That was a relative disaster. So I struck out in another direction, and I taught them how to make dances," says Chase.

"It was a little bit like just giving us finger paints," says Barnett. "We were given some materials, like us. And we fooled around and figured out what we could do."

What they found they could do was glom onto one another.

"You know the idea of standing alone in front of people was impossible," says Barnett. "So we kind of clung to each other for moral as well as physical support."

They named this dance Pilobolus – and it was videotaped at a showcase for student dances. They had been at it only two semesters.

"We managed to combine our bodies, climb over each other, flip, swing, fly, lift, flop each other around in different ways," says Wolken.

The student showcase led to a full-fledged show in New York, which got a great review in The New York Times, and the attention of Charles Reinhart, the director of the prestigious American Dance Festival.

"If you're lucky every decade or so, you see an artist that makes you catch your breath," says Reinhart. "Because they are so totally innovative."

Reinhart says that Pilobolus invented a whole new way to move: "Out of their innocence, they created a new artistic direction based on what they knew, which was athletics, science, and bodies."

Reinhart invited Pilobolus to perform at his festival, and before they knew it, they had become the most unlikely of professional dance troupes. They lived together commune-style in New Hampshire, and traveled from show to show in a little Audi.

Two years in, Chase and another dancer, Martha Clarke, joined up, making the company four men and two women. They choreographed all their dances together as a group.

"We had no one on the outside to say, 'Yeah, that's good, that's bad,'" says Chase. "Because we could never hop outside and look at it."

They became known for weight-sharing -- as in one dance called "Ciona," and for entwining their bodies into positions no one had ever seen before.

So how much fun were they having? "I think the ultimate fun is you were swimming on your own," says Wolken. "You were out in the world. We were performing."

They were having so much fun, in fact, that even when they got too old to lift and climb all over one another, they didn't want to give it all up. So they became the artistic directors and choreographers, and let younger dancers take the stage.

Now, audiences love them. Pilobolus regularly packs theaters around the world.

Over the years, Pilobolus has expanded its range to more sophisticated, even sensual dances, like one duet called "Symbiosis." And this took weight-sharing to a whole new level.

Most dances have a vocabulary, and Pilobolus has one too, with names such as "galloping sofas," "fat gnomes," "flogs," and "dolphins."

"We had to invent our own vocabulary, because there was no name," says Tracy. "There was no name in the ballet technique for the shapes we were making. So we had to make our own."

Pilobolus' movements -- like one they named "Body Floss" -- require strength, skill, timing and a hell of a lot of faith in your partner. They still choreograph their dances together.

The process begins with the dancers improvising and playing, and 60 Minutes joined them when they were just starting to create a new piece.

The dancers start building the movement together, then show it to the artistic directors, who comment and shape it into finished work. No one comes in with a fixed idea -- it's collaborative from start to finish.

Pilobolus' dancers are among the strongest and most versatile in the business. And there's definitely no room for the squeamish.

Have they changed the look of modern dance? "Oh, yeah. I don't think there's a choreographer going, none of them will admit it, of course, who hasn't been affected by the reach that Pilobolus has taken into what is possible in the shapes and forms of the human body," says Reinhart.

And now, they're teaching their technique in workshops -- and not just to dancers -- but primarily to non-dancers, both kids and grown-ups, to see what shapes and forms their bodies come up with.

"We can teach them how to use their natural abilities to make a piece," says Tracy.

"We believe we're teaching creative thinking," adds Barnett. "What's amazing is that once you can kind of create that mood, people will do things that will astound you."