Out of the Shadows [by James Wenley]
My immediate response to Shadowland is an eerie chill: disembodied clothes – two dresses and a suit – dangle from The Civic stage, giving the feeling that I’d walked in on a hanging in which the bodies had decomposed long ago. This grim reading was not something I’d expected from the “enchanting tale” and bright orange marketing, and I was curious if a sense of darkness would permeate the rest of the work. I had a memory of Pilobolus Dance Company performing at the 2007 Oscars, making shadow images of the best picture nominees on a screen via clever body contortions and arrangements. In Shadowland, billed as the “first theatrical event of its kind to tour the globe”, the company collaborate with Spongebob Squarepants writer Steven Banks, to use this technique to create a show that flirts with the darkness of our shadowed phantasies.
The muscular and barely dressed bodies bound onto the stage, and with the hanging costumes now inhabited, we’re given the basic set-up: A teenage girl (Lauren Yalango) is on the boundary of childhood and independence; her parents still view her as the little girl, she is compelled to explore her adult identity. How do we know? She stuffs her bra, and her parents catch her. While a teenager on the cusp of a sexual awakening is a strong provocation for what is to follow, this wasn’t the most compelling of images. Contextualising more fully our heroine’s frustration and confusion could have given us more grounding for the surreal encounters in shadowland to follow. Soon she’s tossing in turning in a bed made of two men as a screen behind her hints at the inner turbulence. Like an adolescent Alice, she’s sucked into a world of both whimsy and danger.
Shadowland carries a distinct feeling of the uncanny; the girl and her shadow on the screen move as one, then breaks and turns on her. We’re used to AV projections, but there is something about the “liveness” of the shadows on the screens – one big, one smaller – that lends itself to the uncanny: embodied, yet flat and absent. It is remarkable what shapes the performers can create, like a giant head or a sandcastle. The company often show us what is happening behind the screen as well, flipping the action so we can check in with how the effect is being achieved. It allows us to admire the skills of these dancers, and to not take the images for granted, but also upsets our perceptions as our conceptions of bodies and images are continually disrupted. While the screen lends initially lends itself to the 2D quality, a use of perspective, and the shifts of the screens themselves, means we are continually in spatial and dimensional ambiguity.
There’s a danger in Shadowland in excusing away the randomness of set-piece sequences as operating in dream logic. Certainly there is much isolated symbology that could sustain a Freudian dream reading (potential phalluses abound), but a satisfying audience experience that does not necessarily make. An inventive sequence where the girl becomes a desired ingredient for three chefs is an early action high-point, but it is not until a giant hand transforms the girl into having the face of the dog (achieved ingeniously easily on the screen) that the work really finds its coherence. This metamorphosis coalesces the themes of difference, otherness, oppression, and the desire for acceptance.
Shadowland is a work of beautiful (and some terrible) images, achieved with awe-inspiring precision and skill from all creatives. It is a show, on an aesthetic level, you can admire completely, and their repackaging of the old fashioned shadow-puppet show is extended to its full 21st Century potential. What I didn’t experience so much vividly was the feeling; in this coming of age story it skims safe, presumably so it can be fulfil the marketed “experience of wonderment for the entire family”. The trade-off however is that the adult experience becomes muted (though might still be too extreme for the younger kids) . It’s willing to hint, but afraid to fully embrace the darkness.
As a bonus, the Pilobolus company know how to engage our latent nationalist pride. After a bodily love-letter to their New York home, they pump up the Dave Dobbyn with their crowd-pleasing tribute to kiwi iconography. Cheers Shadowland.
Shadowland is presented by Pilobolus and plays at The Civic until 8 June. Details see Auckland Live.