Annenberg Center Live presents Pilobolus Dance Theater’s ‘Shadowland’

Out of the shadows

Pilobolus has built its reputation on an athletic interplay of movement that creates shapes out of its dancers’ entangled bodies. Shadowland takes this interplay to the extreme, creating a full-length narrative work, much of which is performed as a shadow play behind a screen.

In Pilobolus's shadow tableau, dog-headed girl meets centaur. (Photo by Ian Douglas)

Sweet dreams

A young girl (Heather Jeane Favretto) opens a box of treasures, and tries out lipstick and a cigarette, while her parents look on with fond humor. Mortified, the girl realizes they have seen her, but they comfort her and leave her a teddy bear. She goes to bed, but this is Pilobolus, so her bed is formed from the backs of three dancers. And this is Shadowland, so the girl soon falls into the strange world of her dreams, which we see as silhouettes against a variety of screens.

In her shadow dream, the girl enjoys many adventures and meets strange plants and creatures: a flower stands at her height; a mad chef chases her with a cleaver. A giant hand gobbles her up and turns her head into that of a dog. As the dog-girl, she travels with a shadow trucker, becomes a circus act, and dives into a shadow sea. In this last scene, an octopus flowing with dancers’ arms as tentacles was particularly effective.

In a segment performed first in shadow and then in front of the screen, the dog-girl meets a centaur, and the dance that follows is sensual and nearly naked. Ultimately, like Alice through the looking-glass or Dorothy in Oz, the girl finds her way home.

Who lives in a shadow land behind a screen?

Shadowland, created by Spongebob Squarepants head writer Steven Banks and David Poe, a composer, musician, and producer, in collaboration with the company, ultimately created a mind-blowing experience. It was also a lot of work, both for performers and audience. Dancers combined in astonishing or mundane shapes: dinosaurs, tables, sweeping windshield wipers performed by dancers’ legs.

During a post-performance question-and-answer session, the dancers demonstrated the creation of a flower: Five dancers, one behind the other, bent sideways at the waist; the circle of their arms raised above their heads shaped the petals. The dancers explained that they also worked with over 250 props and ran the light board that cast the shadows on a variety of large and small screens. They always had to be aware that the angle at which they crossed the light changed the size and shape of the figure they created—a staggeringly complex process.

The audience had a challenging task as well. We had to make the leap into Shadowland, to give up the cues of color and detail and light we regularly rely upon and contribute our own imaginations instead. We had to become complicit in the shared interpretation of the shadows. It was well worth the effort.

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