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Review: Pilobolus' 'Shadowland' Is Confounding And Convincing

Alix Mattingly/Kentucky Center

Thursday evening’s performance of Pilobolus’ “Shadowland” — part of the LEO "A Little Off Center" series at the Kentucky Center — played to a packed Brown Theatre. The internationally acclaimed company was in Louisville for one night only as part of its current tour.

It did not disappoint.

“Shadowland” is a fusion of many art forms and performance styles that lift and enhance each other through juxtaposition. The high-energy 90-minute performance piece showcased the nine performers not only as excellent movement artists, but also as creative technicians whose facility with screens and handheld light sources contributes to the intricate shadow illusions that are created throughout the piece.

In the Q&A following the performance, the dancers spoke of their fascination with storytelling through shadows and puppets. They talked about their collaborative creative process, a signature of this company since its inception in 1971, and how as new dancers join a piece, their strengths and experiences inform that iteration.

It's a process that ensures that Pilobolus’ work is always fresh.

The Louisville story was about a young girl whose sleep enters the shadowland when she mysteriously gets trapped on the other side of the wall of her bedroom. The dreamscape was created masterfully by the company, whose dancers were Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern, Antoine Banks-Sullivan, Klara Beyeler, Nathaniel Buchsbaum, Krystal Butler, Heather Jeane Favretto, Derion Loman, Sayer Mansfield and Derrick Stratton.

From the opening moment the company exploded on stage, the kinesthetic energy never let up, including the city-specific encore that delighted this audience. The overt theatricality of the dream state was established from the beginning, when the characters of the young girl, mother and father were wafted through the air by supporting dancers who helped them into the character-specific costume pieces that had been suspended around the stage.

Using several different-sized screens behind which the ensemble continuously created meticulously choreographed sculpted forms with their bodies, the dreamscape includes the vaguely comic, the breathtakingly beautiful and the undeniably scary.

The initial sequence of presumably benign floral sculptures introduced the audience to the possibilities of this unique approach of transformation. The cauldron sequence — in which everything gets added to the pot by three "scary" chefs — allowed the audience to laugh at the cleverness and theatricality of the form.

Neither of these vignettes fully prepared us, or the young girl, for the dreams to come, as she encountered a larger-than-life figure, putatively male, who has the power with only one hand (which is all the girl and the audience can see) to erase her and recreate her as a dog. (He finally allows her to travel on as a half-girl, half-dog.)

Technically, the shadow-creation of the dog’s head was a fascinating and challenging physical contortion that Favretto sustained for almost half the show.

As this hybrid creature, the girl-dog encounters characters who accept her as she is, who mock and bully her, who abandon her, who capture her and enter her into a freak show. It serves as an eerie commentary on so many "others" in our real world.

The circus-style freak show is one of the few sequences that existed primarily in front of the screens and, as such, was one of the most colorful parts of the production (costumes by Liz Prince). The girl-dog’s encounter with a centaur was a charming interlude that suggests the possibility of acceptance.

Pilobolus has spent almost half a century demonstrating that the human form has an infinite capacity for transformation through movement and imagination. The company's recent fascination with the potential of storytelling through the ancient art of shadow theater is yet another iteration of their own exploration, one that can both delight audiences and confound their expectations of dance.