Every lift of a finger, turn of a head or curve of a spine becomes magnified and meaningful in Shadowland, as its performers create human characters and exotic animals through the art of shadow in this 90 minute show.
Weaving in and out from behind a white screen the US-based contemporary dance group Pilobolus bring to life the story of a young teenager (performed by Lauren Yalango) who wants to grow up and explore the world, and does so through a narrative of elaborate dreams.
Falling asleep in her ordinary home, she is transported into a “shadowland”, and encounters a series of people, animals and scenarios in far away places.
Her adventure soon becomes a nightmare when a menacing “hand shadow” transforms her into a half-human half-dog. She must learn what it means to be an outsider in society, as crazy chefs want to boil her in a stew, exploitative circus masters enlist her to perform, a road-tripping cowboy is first friend then foe, and sea creatures nip at her heels.
The girl/puppy must confront, then escape every situation which leads to sometimes comical, and sometimes dramatic scenes of characters leaping, dashing and chasing across the shadow screen. New Yorker Neil Patel’s set places the large screen in pride of place as the mostly stark and moody lighting plays with the size and dimensions of each black shadow.
The troupe of nine expertly brings each character or creature to life behind the screen forming grand-scale or intricate shadows that speak to the audience wordlessly. It demonstrates how innately we recognise personality, sentiment, or danger from just a shadowy outline or subtle movement.
Each vignette is punctuated by composer David Poe’s score – which could be brash and loud such as in the circus scene, or more melancholic in the under-the-sea scene as it emphasises the different steps in her journey.
Shadowland is unique and visionary as it extravagantly pushes the boundaries of shadow art. When the performers are not in shadow there are impressive sequences of contemporary dance movement where the girl is lifted high, or thrown about in feats of acrobatics. However the choreography also includes a lot of classic, but unsurprising “drop and roll” routines.
The story of a young girl’s journey through strange lands is certainly family-friendly but rather thin; it could pack more of an emotional punch if more grown-up adventure was incorporated with the shadow work.
On opening night in Melbourne the audience appeared enraptured. An encore saw the performers let loose, creating comical shadows as the young girl travelled from New York to Australia and the performers impressively created the word “Melbourne” with their bodies. For this reviewer, it was more a case of appreciating the immense skill on display, but wanting a more powerful narrative to take it that extra step.