Who hasn’t made shadow shapes with their hands at one time or another? Take that, add imagination, precision, gymnastically bendy bodies, multiple moving screens of different shapes and sizes and you get Shadowland.
Pilobolus– named after a barnyard fungus that propels its spores with extraordinary speed, accuracy and strength – had come to my attention from their video of shadow dance using Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” and from their participation in a TED presentation, and I was really eager to watch their performance in the flesh. I was not disappointed, it was engaging.
In Shadowland a young girl, still playing dress up, falls asleep only to wake to something lurking behind her bedroom wall – her shadow. The walls close up on her and she is trapped in a world of shadows, travelling deeper and deeper until she finds her way out. Along the way she meets murderous French chefs, cowboys, joins a freak-show, travels underwater with sea horses and crabs and falls in love with a centaur. Midway, in a scene echoing Michelangelo’s creation of Adam, a giant hand transforms her into half-girl, half-dog – a transformation achieved by the silhouette of her bent elbow becoming a canine snout, her hand a wiggling ear. It is a coming of age story that has drawn inspiration from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi.
Unfortunately, the story itself lacks coherence and a clearly defined character. The shadow world the dancers so laboriously create is neither only realistic nor only imaginary/mythical. It looks more like a smattering of disparate images, drawn from literature, art, mythology and pop culture, brought together and put in such a sequence that they tell a story. Nevertheless, aesthetics aside, the story is easy to follow; it is at times funny, at times wistful, at times tranquil or at times even scary.
What is amazing about Pilobolus and Shadowland, is the fact that such a varied spectacle is created only with the use of some props, moving screens and the ingenious use of light, limps and torsos. It is low-tech and yet, it is exactly that, which makes it outstanding. The spectator is hooked by the ingenuity, coordination and sheer hard work it takes to create even the smallest shadow image, let alone a complete scene. Fingers become spiders, bodies bend to form a truck or a building and a series of empty frames and the different perspective created by manipulating the lighting create a chase scene with depth, straight out of a film noir.
To cap it all, the dancers of Pilobolus treated the audience with two short sequences of quintessential images from both New York and London using Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” and the Clash’s “London Calling” as score. A scouring of YouTube turned out that the same piece had been performed for BBC’s One Show (video here).
A shadowy menagerie of physical and artistic achievement. Do not miss.