Silhouettes Depict Girl’s Coming of Age Dream

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom David Poe: Shadowland: The Pilobolus Dance Company, Peacock Theatre, London, 12.3.2014. (JPr)

PILOBOLUS Shadowland Foto Emmanuel-Donny
PILOBOLUS Shadowland Foto Emmanuel-Donny

During the their ninety engrossing minutes of modern dance, comedy, theatre, circus and fable it is clear how the Pilobolus Dance Company’s unique theatrical experience has captivated those fortunate to have already had an opportunity to see it. This is not ‘smoke and mirrors’ but mostly shadows on a screen as they reveal a fantasy world that lowers the barrier between reality and dreams and focusses on how an innocent teenage girl longs to grow up before her time. It shows the audience something of the psychosexual maturation that Lewis Carroll’s Alice goes through … and Shadowland definitely references. It all begins on a mostly bare stage with a small screen towards the back and a nightgown hanging in the air. It is a small company – 12 male and female dancers are listed but it is mostly nine who are seen. They begin to emerge and then along with changes of costumes and  two-dimensional cut-outs – but mostly through their entwined bodies, hands and legs – create everything else we will see during this young girl’s ‘journey’.

The ‘little girl’ (the charismatic Lauren Yalango) is kissed goodnight by her two parents and prepares for bed but as the story is outlined in the programme ‘she longs for independence (and) with nowhere for her thoughts to go but into her dreams, she falls asleep only to wake to something lurking behind her bedroom wall – her shadow. The walls of her room suddenly start to spin trapping her on the other side. Unable to escape, the girl sets off on a journey of discovery, going deeper and deeper into Shadowland, looking for a way out. Strange creatures appear along the way – both comic and evil, threatening and seductive: crazy chefs try to cook her in a soup, hunch-back monsters threaten to crush her, a giant hand turns her into a dog, and a centaur finds a way into our dog-girl’s heart.’ That’s all you need to know – now go and see it while you can and if you are receptive to this sort of evening you will not be disappointed. Because as the girl comes of age there is some mild nudity and more adult choreography. It may not be a show for the very young but otherwise this is a fascinating evening for anyone willing to lose themselves in the surreal shadow world Pilobolus bring their audience.

The company began in America in 1971 and after experimenting with shorter forms of shadow presentations – such as the award-winning Hyundai commercial (available on YouTube) and the opening of the 2007 Academy Awards show when they imitated the films nominated for best picture – this full-length show was developed by Pilobolus’s talented creative team in collaboration with Steve Banks, head writer on SpongeBob SquarePants (an animated series) and American composer David Poe.

A larger screen often lowers and those watching can willingly immerse themselves in the world of silhouettes and the less-original front-of-screen contemporary choreography that owes much to the legacies of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch. Physical action seamlessly becomes illusion when bodies become imagery as they merge one into another; it is poetic, sometimes inexplicable and often totally magical.

The girl’s sexual maturation is mostly explored in her alter ego ‘Dog Girl’ dream world and as her tale unravels there are nightmares, some cruelty and much eroticism – even from the beginning, the female dancers seem to have raided Victoria’s Secret for their underwear! Apart from the crazy chefs and the centaur previously mentioned there are two tremendous extended sequences when ‘Dog Girl’, who is being hunted, goes on a road trip in a pickup truck (it is marvellous how she guzzles the cowboy’s drink and passing twigs suggest movement) and then the girl ends up among the acts of an American circus overseen by whip-cracking dominatrix-style ringmistress. Pilobolus expertly use all possible sorts of communication except words to illuminate this tale of a young girl’s sexual awakening.

Neil Peter Jampolis’s lighting and the recorded music complement the actual performance perfectly. Allied to some atmospheric sound effects we heard mostly instrumental music, especially sitars, and some original songs, either ballads or rock numbers. I especially liked the songs ‘Joy’ that accompanied ‘Dog Girl’ and her cowboy companion motoring down a US highway and ‘The Elephant’ when we were at the circus. Although Pilobolus originates on the US East Coast much of the music was redolent of 1960’s West Coast pop and folk psychedelia. However the real centre of attention throughout the evening was the talented dancers’ energetic, precise, lithe and fluid movement that ‘brought to life’ everything we saw projected on the screen, including all the shadow-beasts – I particularly loved the elephants, seahorse, jellyfish, crabs and centaur.

The evening was jaw-droppingly enthralling throughout, so do go along if you think this will appeal to you. The only thing that I would suggest it that the stage really should be darkened more so that the dancers are not visible to the sides of the stage (at least from where I sat) and seen sorting themselves out between sequences. I thought this detracted from the dramatic atmosphere they otherwise created but this is mere ‘nit-picking’. Other than this, everything was splendid and will live long in my memory.

Eventually the girl awakes and appreciates all that she had experienced was, indeed, just a dream. But that was not the end and everyone then segued through two short entertaining encores; the first was to the chorus of Jay Z’s song ‘Empire of State of Mind’ with iconic images of New York, and a second to The Clash’s ‘London Calling’ that featured silhouettes of the capital’s famous landmarks and ended by wishing us ‘Cheers’ … whilst it was the Pilobolus Dance Company (‘the original shadow theatre troupe’) that thoroughly deserved all the cheers they got!

Jim Pritchard

Performances continue at the Peacock Theatre until 30th March. For further information please go to