Shadowland

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Published: 16th August, 2016
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Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Pilobolus’ performance last Thursday night illuminated the stage. Shadowland was created by the American dance troupe with collaborators Steven Banks, head writer for the hit Nickelodeon show SpongeBob SquarePants, and singer-songwriter David Poe, who wrote the score. It is truly a visual masterpiece, using a creative combination of shadow puppetry, dance athleticism, mime, and theatre, weaving together an original take on a familiar coming-of-age theme.

A young girl is staring at herself in a mirror and acts out different characters. Her parents spy on her and lovingly laugh at her innocence. Her feelings are hurt and she falls asleep to dream of a journey that transforms her into a woman. The narrative is largely expressed through three different forms of shadow theatre: three small mobile screens, one mid-sized screen for more intimate scenes and 1 large scrim for scenes with a greater landscape. The use of shadows is extremely innovative using depth perception, illusion, props, and uncanny body parts to tell the story. The result is the perfect balance of the literal and abstract. This is a thoroughly entertaining show with a high level of artistic integrity.

The shadows in Shadowland are often used as a metaphor for the young girls’ fears and insecurities. At first her dream feels like a nightmare as a mysterious, ominous large hand reaches down at her from the sky. She is truly frightened by the unknown and the hand changes her into a dog from the neck up. Perhaps this is how the young girl sees herself, but regardless, she learns to love herself and only then does the “curse of the dog” lift to reveal a confident, happy, young woman. Her journey is easily relatable. The twist is how Pilobolus interweaves this tale with imaginative shadow play, seamless choreography, and quirky humor. Shadowland deals with weighty issues but never does it take itself too seriously. There is a childlike joy and sense of fun throughout the performance that keeps the audience buoyant and intrigued.

Pilobolus first started performing this particular form of shadow theatre in 2007 at the 79th Academy Awards. From that came a slew of car commercials and television appearances along with their famed dance photography calendars. Founded in 1971 at Dartmouth College, the company is a non-traditional collective of dancers and choreographers. Born out of the post-modern dance era Pilobolus has no cult of personality with any of its lead dancers, choreographers or artistic directors. Probably the most well known founder/choreographer was Moses Pendelton who left Pilobolus in 1980 to start his own company, Momix. What Pilobolus is known for is its unique form of creating art with a collection of people. The company is so well known for its collaborative process it has even been hired by businesses such as Avon, Google, IBM and Dupont. Pilobolus has a proven technique for creative collaboration.

It must be noted that Pilobolus is a bit of an enigma, one could say similar to the micro-fungus after which it is named. The company is small and runs like a well-oiled machine. At Thursday night’s performance there were no program notes, no show credits, posters or paraphernalia. There was also no intermission and the performance ran at a sleek hour and twenty minutes. Perhaps that is an added beauty to Shadowland – a purity in the art and mystery of illusion. Audience members were treated to a wonderfully amusing and even poignant story delivered without any frills or hint of commercialism.

Shadowland is rich and imaginative, fun and inventive. It never strays very far from what Pilobolus historically does best: entertain through highly athletic dance moves and theatrical play.

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The picture was taken by John Kane.

Shadowland’s Melbourne season at the State Theatre has finished and the production opens in Sydney in September.