Shadow theatre has been around a very long time, and it carries significant cultural associations. Puppetry always plays a large part, and the subjects of this kind of spectacle are often kings and princesses. Pilobolus’s Shadowland comes out of America, has as its subject an ordinary young girl, and replaces puppetry with the dancers’ bodies. This proves a constantly invigorating point of difference.
The story, such as it is, involves a teenage girl [Lauren Yalango] who enters into a dream world to escape the stultifying protection of her parents. Once there, she narrowly escapes some cannibals trying to add her to a soup, is bullied by some surly silver beet, and gets herself transformed into a dog girl.
While this sounds appropriately surreal and fantastical, it must be said the majority of the effects in this show are of the ‘look-what-we-can-do’ variety, and any thematic cohesion comes a distant second to the elaborate tricks of the silhouette. We are treated to elephants and jellyfish that have little to no bearing on the action, and large chunks of the running time are wasted on extraneous set pieces.
Metamorphosis plays a massive part in Shadowland but we are nevertheless a long way from Ovid. The central transformation of the girl into a canine carries interesting, if underexplored, ideas around monstrosity and difference. With the body of a girl and the head of a dog – achieved with a breathtaking simplicity – she is humiliated and exploited, before embracing transgression with the sensual aid of a centaur. Like you do!
Shadowland seems willing to mine rich themes but sadly the majority of the show is dependent on the most obvious and superficial reading of its own theatrical device. Dancers use their bodies to transform into silhouettes of things, usually animals but also castles and buildings and such.
In fact, every time the performers retreat behind the screens, the piece becomes less interesting. There is an unavoidable two-dimensionality to the images the dancers create, but the follow-on effect is a literal and emotional flatness. Only when the screens are removed does the show begin to soar.
Thankfully, the dancers are terrific, and there are some genuinely beautiful moments. Yalango is a graceful and engaging lead, and when the ensemble manipulate her body through space, like undulating dream weavers, the feeling of freedom through benign forces is palpable and touching. The dance with the centaur is sublime, and coalesces two of the major ideas at work in Shadowland – the move from adolescence into maturity, and transformation as the means to self-actualisation.
Of course, the audience aren’t here for Freudian interpretations of the shadow. They are here to see people turn into cool stuff. This is clearly evidenced in the extended finale, which depicts a journey through New York and – in an ingratiating nod to the locals – Australia. In quick succession we get the Statue of Liberty, the Arts Centre spire, koalas, camels and kangaroos.
It’s all harmless fun, but it doesn’t mean anything, and starts to come off like an elaborate party trick. It’s disappointing, especially given the potential for something truly great. The design is slick and the lighting effective, and the whole thing runs for an easily manageable 90 minutes. If only it had embraced the uncanny and the figurative more, Shadowland could have tapped into the horror and wonder of shadows, their ability to mock and mirror us.
State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne, St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 28 May 2014 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 1 June 2014
Bookings: 1300 182 183 or online at: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au
Following its Melbourne season, this internationally-acclaimed performance can be seen in Auckland (3 – 8 June), Brisbane (10 – 15 June), Sydney (17 – 20 June), Canberra (21 – 22 June), Perth (25 June – 6 July), and Adelaide (9 – 13 July). For more information, visit: www.shadowlandlive.com for details.
Image: Shadowland – courtesy of Pilobolus
Review: Tim Byrne