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Pilobolus' magic lantern

When it first somersaulted onto the post-modern dance scene 40 years ago, Pilobolus Dance Theatre baffled and intrigued the most seasoned dance lovers. Through Lego-like maneuvers and creative lighting cues, the six-member troupe transformed human bodies into trees, caterpillars and extraterrestrials. Were they dancers, acrobats, filmmakers or magicians? Today, even though Pilobolus has the means to create more technologically sophisticated optical illusions, audiences are still asking the same question. And the answer is all of the above.

Pilobolus performs a retrospective of early and new work -- often likened to vintage cinematic experiments, such as the magic lantern projector, only with bodies -- Jan. 28 and 29 at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. On the bill is a more recent foray into the group’s masterful visual and physical sleight of hand. The Transformation is a shadow-theater excerpt from a larger piece called Shadowlands. It was created in collaboration with Steven Banks, lead writer for the animated SpongeBob SquarePants series, and singer-songwriter David Poe. The Transformation is both a children’s story come to life and a whimsical suggestion of Michelangelo’s fresco of God creating Adam. It all takes place behind a large screen in silhouette. A giant hand molds the figure of a young girl like clay. Through some deft manipulations, she loses her head only for it to be replaced by that of a poodle. The dog wags its tail and rolls on its back. Eventually the likable figure becomes a dog-headed girl sent off on a journey – hobo sack and all -- to join the circus by her Titan of a creator. It’s a familiar coming of age story with a fantastical twist.

The company was started by a group of dance students at Dartmouth College. It’s named for a fungus. But these dancer-contortionists provide something more aesthetically pleasing than germinating spores. Pilobolus also will perform Duet, a shape-shifting classic in which two women in sundresses grow taller and shorter before the audience’s eyes, and other pieces -- some more athletic and dancerly; others in the abstract-filmic vein. Co-artistic director Michael Tracy points to the group’s keen ability to spur a shock of recognition. He says they don’t rely on elaborate rigs to create illusions. Instead they craft magical images through interlocking bodies and hand shadows.

Pilobolus Dance Theatre performs Jan. 28 and 29 at 7:30 p.m. at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph Drive. Tickets: $25-$55. Call 312-334-7777 or visit www.harristheaterchicago.org. More information: www.pilobolus.com.

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