"Faster! Faster!" A wispy, gray-haired man in black sweats and a T-shirt shouts at 24 Wharton MBA students as they run barefoot around a theater. He's tearing around, too. "Lean! Move! Don't look at the floor!" he yells. The students obey, awkwardly, a few knocking into one another, one landing in a heap.
These future managers are learning about leadership and collaboration from Jonathan Wolken, cofounder of the modern-dance troupe Pilobolus. So far, though, the Wharton kids look as if they'd be content just to survive the daylong workshop unbruised.
After half an hour, Wolken finally asks, "So how's this working for you?" Not so well, is the consensus. He points out spaces between students that open up as folks move and shift positions in the room. "Use your peripheral vision to see the hole before it's even there. Move in. Be purposeful, and people will fall in place around you," he says.
Suddenly, the metaphors for business and life dawn on the faces in the room. "Don't just smash into people. Make adjustments, and make them smoothly. It's only a mistake if you acknowledge it. Otherwise, it's just another way to learn." Wolken could just as easily be advising an entrepreneur to sharpen his radar for new business prospects and lead by example, or counseling an executive to see opportunity in failure.
The students split into small groups and are given a daunting task: Create and perform a dance. Wolken challenges them to ask, "What can you do with what you've got?" Three groups create exuberant performances, complete with lifts and full story lines. But the fourth, with no dance experience and saddled with one decidedly uncoordinated reporter, is at a loss.
Two hours later, we return to Wolken's original premise: Forget traditional ideas of dance. Just figure out what you can do that's interesting enough for people to look at. We choose to sit quietly, in a line, and just breathe. Occasionally, someone stretches or rolls her head. It is quiet, extremely uncomfortable to watch, and ultimately captivating. The simplest solution has turned out to be the best.
A version of this article appeared in the July 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.