Shadowland – review

June 17, 2014 at 12:00 am  •  Posted in Articles by

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In Shadowland a teenage girl falls asleep safe at home only to enter a shadowy, sinister world in her dreams. Like Alice in Wonderland she must explore – and try to escape — the labyrinth around her, one of murderous chefs, giant gods, and menacing circus trainers.

There’s a twist: the American dance company Pilobolus has masterfully conjured up an alternative universe using nothing but their shadows. Each of the muscular dancers can expertly transform a slanted finger into an ear or a bent back into a chair. Together, they twist their limbs and torsos into elephants, sea horses, and even the Statue of Liberty rising out of the depths of the stage.

Although no words are ever spoken it is clear that this is a journey of self-discovery. The central protagonist is frustrated with life at home under her parents’ thumbs, and underlying her quest seems to be an unconscious search for sexuality. This is underscored at the start when the girl, not yet asleep, stuffs her bra with tissues while pulling poses in the mirror. In her twilight-world phallus symbols continually erupt, although they seem more scary than tempting.

There is another factor, too: early on, the girl is magically transformed into a hybrid dog with a female body and a canine face. This leaves her vulnerable to ridicule and abuse: she is literally roped into performing at a freak show with a circus. But, in a happy crescendo, she also shares a moment of intimacy with a strapping centaur, also half animal, half human, who appears to be attracted to, rather than repelled by, her hybrid-form.

Naysayers to the American dance sensation, now touring the globe, point out that this plot is somewhat flimsy. They are right. But despite the lack of narrative drive, Shadowland’s sheer energy, and the creative joy the cast take with their craft, makes for mesmerising viewing.

It is also never too clever for its own good. At first glance the silhouettes can seem impossibly slick. But Pilobolus retains their charm by letting the audience have a glimpse of how they achieve their ends. Dancers roll off stage, dismantling complex shapes with a flurry of legs. The hybrid-dog’s snout is actually a simple trick made from a bent elbow with hands used to create both wiggling ears and a lapping tongue.

If much of Shadowland plays on the fears that plague us in our sleep, it ends on an unashamed high. In an encore, Pilobolus provides a picture-perfect snapshot of both New York and Sydney. The latter, appropriately set to “Land Down Under” by Men at Work, showcases the Opera House, surfing, and, yes, a boxing kangaroo. At the end of the day, this is a show whose narrative may be simple, and its offerings clichéd, but it is hard not to be swept along for the ride

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