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John Sanford, News Service: (650) 736-2151,

Pilobolus, St. Lawrence collaborate on new work

Of the many dance companies performing today, Pilobolus may do the most to support Yeats' assertion that it's hard to know the dancer from the dance. (Given the troupe members' penchant to twist themselves together like pretzels, it's even more difficult to distinguish individual dancers from one another.)

But in teaming up with the St. Lawrence String Quartet -- Stanford's ensemble-in-residence -- and Canadian composer Christos Hatzis, the supple and gymnastic dancers have one-upped the late Irish poet: In their new collaborative work, which premiered Friday at Stanford, it's hard to know the dancers from the music.

Commissioned by Lively Arts, the new piece was built, for the most part, from scratch. Music and dance seem to flow together organically, like a kaleidoscope.

The idea for a St. Lawrence-Pilobolus collaboration was hatched several years ago, according to quartet violinist Barry Shiffman.

Once, after the St. Lawrence had finished performing a concert at a music festival in Blue Hill, Maine, a member of Pilobolus' board of trustees, who had been in the audience, approached the quartet and insisted it team up with the dance troupe. So the musicians met with Pilobolus' artistic director, Michael Tracy, in New York. "It was one of those projects we both wanted to do but were both busy, and it just sort of fizzled," Shiffman said.

About two years later, on a ferry off the coast of Maine, the St. Lawrence bumped into the same trustee. "She's got us captive for 40 minutes, and she's just giving us a hard time," Shiffman recalled. "She says, 'I don't understand what happened. How come that project didn't go anywhere?' "

So Shiffman got in touch again with Tracy, and they decided on putting together an entire evening of dance with live quartet music (Pilobolus generally performs to recorded music). It was only a matter of finding a sponsor. Shiffman picked up the phone and called Lois Wagner, executive director of Lively Arts. "I said, 'OK, Lois, this is the project: Pilobolus Dance Theatre and St. Lawrence String Quartet want to do this new work. For this to happen, though, we need commissioning money,' " Shiffman said. "Within 10 minutes, she had committed to two performances, and she wanted the premier of the new work at Stanford."

The St. Lawrence sent Pilobolus some recordings of their favorite string quartet compositions, and Tracy chose a piece titled The Gathering by Hatzis. However, Tracy wanted the duration of the piece to be 20 minutes instead of 40 minutes.

"This was a real challenge," Hatzis said. "Can you keep all the ideas at half the length and still have something that really makes musical sense? I must confess, at the time I didn't think it was possible."

It was, of course, and Hatzis described the process of working in person with the St. Lawrence and Pilobolus for about a week in Connecticut during December as "exhilarating."

"I think the strength of this collaboration is that the piece -- if you play it as a piece of music -- it does not work, it does not make sense," Hatzis said. "It takes its meaning from the connection it has with the dance."


By John Sanford

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