The theme of this paper is that algebraic complexity implies dynamical complexity for pseudo-Anosov homeomorphisms of a closed surface Sg of genus g. Penner proved that the logarithm of the minimal dilatation for a pseudo-Anosov homeomorphism of Sg tends to zero at the rate 1/g. We consider here the smallest dilatation of any pseudo-Anosov homeomorphism of Sg acting trivially on Γ/Γk the quotient of Γ = π1 (Sg) by the kth term of its lower central series, k ≥ 1. In contrast to Penner's asymptotics, we prove that this minimal dilatation is bounded above and below, independently of g, with bounds tending to infinity with k. For example, in the case of the Torelli group I(Sg), we prove that L(I(Sg)), the logarithm of the minimal dilatation in I(Sg), satisfies .197 < L(I(Sg)) < 4.127. In contrast, we find pseudo-Anosov mapping classes acting trivially on Γ/Γk whose asymptotic translation lengths on the complex of curves tend to 0 as g → ∞.
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