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IMPRESSIONS OF: Pilobolus in "Shadowland"

IMPRESSIONS OF: Pilobolus in "Shadowland"
Theo Boguszewski

By Theo Boguszewski
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Published on December 2, 2015
Photo: Ian Douglas

At NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts

Running November 20th -December 6th, 2015

for tickets go to Skirball Center for the Performing Arts website, click here

Created by: Steven Banks, Robby Barnett, Renee Jaworski, Matt Kent, Itamar Kubovy and Michael Tracy
Performed by: Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern, Antoine Banks-Sullivan, Krystal Butler, Benjamin Coalter, Heather Jeane Favretto, Jordan Kriston, Derion Loman, Sayer Mansfield and Mike Tyus
Original Music: David Poe
Lighting Design: Neil Peter Jampolis
Costume Design: Liz Prince

The internationally-acclaimed dance collective, Pilobolus, has been wowing audiences with their unique brand of dance-theater for 44 years. Shadowland, their latest endeavor, adds shadow-theater into the mix as the company attempts their first evening-length narrative. Marketing itself as an all-ages affair, Shadowland made it’s New York City premiere at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts this November and continues through December 6th. While youngsters may find the storyline confusing and adults may find it lacking in substance, all will undoubtedly be awed by Pilobolus’s latest carnival of illusions.

The work brings us back to childhood, when nighttime shadows on the bedroom wall inspired a world of imagination. We enter the theater to a stage set up like a disjointed dressing room. Clothing hangs on racks and mannequins are dispersed throughout. A cartoon-like pineapple descends from the left side of the ceiling giving a nod to the television character “SpongeBob SquarePants” (Steven Banks, SpongeBob’s writer, is on Pilobolus’s creative team).

The pixie-like Heather Jeane Favretto, Shadowland’s nameless protagonist, plays a teenage girl who longs to grow up but is simultaneously fearful of the prospect. When her parents catch her vogueing in her mirror, make-up and hairbrush in hand, she ashamedly rushes to sleep thereby entering a whirlwind dream adventure that travels the depths of her psyche.

4 dancers in shadow in front of a pink background. A giant clay pot sits between the dancers
Photo by Emmanuel Donny

Initially, we anticipate that the story might evolve into a lightly, twisted variation on The Nutcracker — where a little girl falls asleep and stumbles into a magical dreamland of sweets to meet her prince charming. Ultimately Shadowland becomes an epic journey of trials and tribulations more reminiscent of Homer’s Odyssey. The protagonist is chained, beaten, cooked in a stew, and chased off a cliff. (Growing up is a nightmare.)

The gymnastic cast of Pilobolus transform their bodies into shapes and figures behind a screen to create scenes featuring a menagerie of characters and creatures. A single silhouette explodes beautifully into a dozen arms and legs. Iconic images appear. We see Greek mythology’s Narcissus sitting by a pool of water staring at his reflection. In one scene Favretto meets Ceberous, the three-headed dog, guarding the gates of Hades. Michelangelo’s God reaches for Adam’s hand a la “The Creation of Adam” painting in The Sistine Chapel. While curiosity arousing, these references, like the random hanging pineapple earlier, seem arbitrary. The action jumps quickly from scene to scene with the shallow plot line acting simply as a base for visual spectacle.

By contrast, Favretto’s dancing is agile and nuanced, and her acrobatic scenes are breathtaking. Five strong men in thongs sweep her around the stage, tossing her like a feather in the wind amongst them. With such an adept team of performers, we want to see more dance.

The ensemble launch their bodies off the ground by supporting themselves by their right hand
Photo by Ian Douglas

But Shadowland isn't entirely performed in shadows. At times the magic screen rises to reveal extravagant dance-theater episodes -- the most memorable being a raunchy circus, where a sexy ringmaster in red glitter cracks a whip and a sword-swallowing act appears blatantly phallic.

After the curtain call, the show caps off with a cute coda — perhaps the best part of the evening. A goofy homage to New York City sends our girl hero gallivanting from the Bronx Zoo to the Staten Island Ferry grooving to a catchy tune by David Poe. Pilobolus is clearly adept at making brief, clever statements and this finale sends us off on a light-hearted note.

It’s difficult to imagine that kids will be able to follow the storyline of Shadowland, which is confusing even for the adult audience. While youngsters will no doubt enjoy the stunning illusions, prevalent themes of violence and sexuality may be inappropriate. Perhaps the attempt to appeal to such a vast spectrum of audience is why the adventure falls flat? Or maybe the vast creative team adds up to “too many cooks” (there are six creators!) dragging the plot in too many directions.

Still, my advice is GO!  See Shadowland, just don’t analyze. Simply allow yourself to be swept away by what Pilobolus does best — using the body to create magnificent, magical illusions.

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