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The promise of a surprise, a laugh -- or both

Who would have spotted Pilobolus as a success story waiting to happen? When its first four members got together in the early '70s, their venture seemed quixotic at best. Not one was a seasoned performer. Their dance experience consisted of a few college classes. Their name was hard to pronounce.

Not anymore it isn't. Dance-watchers everywhere have learned to speak that peculiar word and to order tickets promptly when it goes up on a marquee. The troupe has been through a lot of changes on the way to its 15th anniversary, but the basics are still the same: a freewheeling spirit, a cooperative approach, and a willingness to explore any idea that promises a surprise, a laugh, or both.

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Pilobolus is celebrating its first decade and a half with a month-long season at the Joyce Theatre here, continuing through March 3. The three alternating programs include works as early as the 1972 ``Ocellus,'' as recent as the 1984 ``Return to Maria La Baja.''

Many evolutionary stages are visible in the dances between those points, which stem from periods when the group introduced female roles; enlarged its repertoire of movements; reached into more corners of the music world; and broadened its vocabulary of stage effects to include the sexual, somber, and violent as well as the whimsical, magical, and dreamlike.

Not all the methods and devices work, and a few weaknesses seem built into the troupe's current personality -- repetitions, visual punch lines that fall flat, and occasional images that seem contrived rather than conjured. Yet the overall effect is still marked by nonstop energy and invention, qualities that have stood the company well since the start.

My experience with Pilobolus goes back to its first years, when the early members were just starting to develop ideas they had picked up in a dance course at Dartmouth College, where they had met not long before. To hear about their recent history firsthand, I visited Jonathan Wolken -- one of the founding Piloboli, and still one of the five artistic directors -- during a rehearsal break at the Joyce.

``Everything has changed,'' he said, confirming the obvious. Central to the change, he noted, is a shift in emphasis away from whole-group projects and toward ideas introduced by individual dancers.

The result is more variety, and perhaps less of the Pilobolusness that was once the troupe's calling card. ``There are no trends,'' says Mr. Wolken, who admits only to a few general tendencies: ``Humor has become slightly less, theatricality has become somewhat more, and darkness now has a definite place. We're still an odd creature that never settles into one particular thing. By the time we realize where we are, we've moved on.''

Perhaps the biggest turning point in Pilobolus history was the addition of female members to the original four-man group. The presence of women brought ``a different sensibility, a different presence, different possibilities for body combinations,'' says Wolken. ``It's always difficult to dance about relationships, but it's easier for a man when there's a woman to dance with. There's a new look and feeling; the eye sees gesture and facial expression differently. There's a new level of inference, a new emotional wave.

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``And also,'' Wolken adds with a smile, ``women are lighter projectiles. It's easier to throw, lift, balance, catapult, cantilever, and altogether move them around!''

Another change has been the partial retirement of the early members from actual performance. Exhausted after years of touring, they have replaced themselves with newer and more highly trained dancers, and now they focus their own energies on directing the company from its base in Washington, Conn. The troupe is building its first real studio there, another step toward permanence and a consolidated group identity.

Despite all these developments, Wolken says the essentials of Pilobolus are pretty much what they've always been. ``We're still a functional dance company,'' he says. ``We're still in the front lines battling it out with the world. The democratic process is still fraught with difficulties, and we still argue.

``But we've also made a certain peace with each other about the reality of the new process, which is not completely collective,'' he adds. ``Individuals sometimes put themselves first now, in a way that probably would have been unthinkable once. Yet we're still experimental. We've never arrived at a single system or solution. The remarkable thing is that as we've grown older, we haven't grown too stodgy. We remain loose -- partly, anyway.''

Is there a single image that sums up the Pilobolus experience? Yes, says Wolken, whose Dartmouth days left him with a fondness for biological imagery that shows up in dance titles and even the name Pilobolus, which was borrowed from a light-seeking fungus.

``We're pseudopodic,'' he muses. ``We send [parts] of ourselves out in a certain direction, and the rest of us creep up behind. We don't confront a problem with hammer and tongs -- we engulf it with our ectoplasm. . . .''

Following its New York run, Pilobolus will appear March 8-9 in Skokie, Ill.; March 12 in Akron, Ohio; March 15 and 17 in Boston; March 20-21 in Los Angeles; April 4 and 6 in Denver; April 9 at the University of Connecticut; April 11 at the University of Massachusetts; April 13 in Portland, Maine; April 16 in Wilmington, Del.; April 18 in Jacksonville, Fla.; April 25-27 in Dallas; April 30 in West Virginia; May 2 in New Haven, Conn.; May 4 at C. W. Post College on Long Island, N.Y.; and June 27-29 at the American Dance Festival. The troupe will tour in Europe during May and June.

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