There are certain expectations that one has when going to a dance show. One anticipates seeing dancers in beautiful costumes gliding across the stage in ways that seem to defy gravity and human anatomy. One expects to hear music that perfectly captures the quality of the movement on stage, and one awaits to be swept into an alternative reality in which movement becomes the best medium to convey pain, passion, love, and what it means to be human.
Pilobolus somehow simultaneously defies and exceeds these expectations. Founded in 1971 by a group of students at Dartmouth College, Pilobolus has grown into an internationally acclaimed arts organization, known for its interdisciplinary, experimental approach to movement and storytelling. This Tuesday, I saw “Shadowland” at McCarter Theater, an evening-length show collaboratively created by Pilobolus’s directors and Steven Banks, the lead writer for SpongeBob SquarePants. The show recounts a young girl’s dream, in which she is trapped as a shadow behind her bedroom wall. Combining choreography with projected images on multiple moving screens, Pilobolus uses shadow theater to truly capture the “shadowland” that the girl is trying to escape. It was unlike any performance I have ever seen in its audacity and creativity to stray so far away from conventional dance practices as to redefine and extend the reach and power of movement.
Stripped of the tutus one might typically associate with a dance show, Pilobolus’ performers took to the stage predominantly in underwear, sometimes even shedding this extra layer to perform significant portions of choreography in the nude. Their bodies, uncovered and unornamented by frills or tulle, became the sole focus of the audience, drawing attention to the images and characters the dancers created through the contortion of their own bodies rather than those typically projected onto them through clothing and props.
Over and over, the audience joined together in collective awe as the intricate images and characters projected onto the screens were deconstructed to reveal the dancers’ bodies coming together to create each picture, weaving together a story behind the lit screen. The dancers transformed themselves into tables, animals, monsters, buildings, creatures, and much more, each time leaving the audience questioning how their bodies could morph together to create such detailed and nuanced images.
To me, one of the most beautiful transformations throughout the show was also the most subtle. Shortly after being trapped, the girl encounters a large, mysterious hand that descends from the screen and transforms her into a dog from the waist up. The girl’s elbow bends to become her snout, her hand drapes over her head to form her ears, and her curly hair falls forward to frame her face in a scrappy, canine way. It was such a simple, elegant, and brilliant shift that the dancer skillfully maintained for the rest of the show.
In this transformed, half-canine state, the girl then continues her journey through various hardships until she finally awakens from her dream at the end of the show with a new sense of self and maturity. “Shadowland” truly epitomizes the power of movement to tell a story, and the capacity of human bodies to create and convey images madden with meanings. Pilobolus defies limitations, extending its storytelling into realms of humor and intimacy, passion and play, joy and pain, and fantasy and reality. Ultimately, all of the impressive and fanciful visuals are employed to convey the simple, touching coming of age of a young girl.
"Shadowland" has received some criticism for what some see as an apparent lack of depth in its storyline. However, I found this to be part of this show's beauty. The abstract, open-ended nature of the story allows for its audience to piece together the myriad of images in whatever way they choose, and to reach a conclusion that echoes their personal experience.
To me, the stunning imagery in Pilobolus’ “Shadowland” told a fun, heartfelt, and intimate story of a girl whose time spent in a dreamy “shadowland” allowed her to grow and wake up with a new acceptance and love of herself. Without saying a word, the show tells an entire story of pain, adventure, and love. And is there any better reason than that to go see a dance performance?