Pilobolus in Shadowland Photo Ian Douglas

Pilobolus in Shadowland
Photo Ian Douglas

NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, NY
November 21, 2015

Jerry Hochman

A new show opened on Friday at NYU’s Skirball Center to launch the theater’s holiday season.

It’s about this girl.

She lives in a big house with her parents and creatures that scurry all around and may or may not be real. She’s just a little – ok, a lot – precocious, and has a vivid imagination. When the girl falls asleep, she dreams of a fantasy realm in which she battles demons, overcomes adversity, and falls in love – and from which she emerges on the cusp of womanhood.

If you’re thinking that this is yet another version of The Nutcracker, but one that focuses more on Clara’s coming of age than on a dream kingdom of high-calorie sweets and benevolent fairies, you’d be wrong.

In the girl’s imagination, she’s whisked to another world as if she was falling through a rabbit hole. She finds herself in a strange place occupied by clever but weird-looking, shape-shifting creatures, some of whom want to eat her for dinner, and one – the one in control – who wants to cut off her head.

If you’re thinking Alice in Wonderland, you’d still be wrong.

And in the course of this dream, which includes non-stop action and witty staging, the girl and the characters in her mind climb all over themselves, execute impossible multi-dancer balances, effect moving human origami, and display some seemingly gratuitous but inoffensive nudity.

Aha, you think. It’s Pilobolus! This time you’d be right.

Pilobolus has been creating innovative dance theater since it was conceived at Dartmouth College in 1971. While its presentations run the gamut of theatrical innovation, the company is best known for its utilization of weight-shifting technique to create intriguing sculptural images, its experimentation with multi-media and manipulation of light and shadow, and its collaborative creation process. That it’s also recognized for generating entertaining, albeit somewhat bizarre, works of theatrical art is a bonus.

During its 2014 summer season at the Joyce Theater, the company performed a piece called The Transformation, an excerpt from an internationally acclaimed program that had not yet made its way to the U.S., called Shadowland. I described the excerpt then as an exceptional piece of theater, illustrating not just a girl’s shape-shifting transformations, but her ‘real’ transformation to adulthood.

Pilobolus now has brought the complete production of Shadowland to NYU’s Skirball Center for its long-overdue North American premiere. Created in 2009 by a committee of six (the program gives particular creative credit to Steve Banks and David Poe) in collaboration with the original nine-member cast, the piece remains as fresh-looking now as it must have looked then. And don’t let its lack of ballet or contemporary dance pedigree, or the seeming absence of rigorous technique, fool you. Finally seen in its full form, Shadowland impresses as an edgy combination of dance, circus, acrobatics, and theatrical magic; a joyous extravaganza every bit as worthy of seasonal celebration as The Nutcracker.

Shadlowland Photo Ian Douglas

Photo Ian Douglas

The story takes place in the hyper-sensitized nether lands of the mind of a girl who can’t wait to grow up. As the houselights dim, a young girl, already in something of an adolescent fugue state, enters an eerie-looking darkened room resembling a cross between Dr. Coppelius’s workshop and a teenaged girl’s dream nurtury, within which some garments hang. She touches a frilly nightdress that hangs from the ceiling, and the quiet stage suddenly explodes with activity as she conjures an entourage of strange-looking hyperactive imaginary beings – let’s call them ‘furies’ (as opposed to fairies, sugarplum or otherwise) – agents of her imagination. After she discovers her parents watching her preen like the grown-up she wants to be, the girl evicts them from her pretend world, enlists the help of her furies, and eventually enters the shadow world of her dreams.

Detailing the adventures that the girl’s mind concocts, and that the Pilobolus creative wizards and dancers bring to life, would spoil the fun of seeing it. Suffice it to say that behind a movable (and at times disappearing) translucent curtain and abetted by skillfully placed lighting (designed by Neil Peter Jampolis), she wanders into scaryland and eventually encounters a supreme being who replaces her head with that of a dog and then sends her on an epic journey through rolling hills and ocean waves. During her travels she encounters, among other things, snakes, crabs, cannibals, monsters, hunters, a giant, a Shiva-like creature, a jellyfish, a seahorse – and a sensitive centaur with whom she dances a spirited moonlight pas de trois (after the centaur splits into his component parts) every bit as appropriate, in its context, as Clara’s dance with the Nutcracker Prince. Call it puppy love – albeit at an advanced level. And if you have an overly imaginative, ballet-addled mind, you can see her briefly become a dog/girl Odette choosing to end it all rather than succumb to the evil being that is tormenting her. She awakens after she comes to accept herself as she is – with the help of that supreme being and the love of a good centaur.

There are a lot of rough edges to Shadowland – including the confusing juxtaposition between dream scenes ‘in shadow’, scenes that are still in the girl’s dream but are seemingly ‘real’, and the unnecessarily nasty circus scene into which the prodigal daughter wanders. Particularly annoying to me, but apparently intentional, is the constant visibility of the performers beyond the screen’s perimeters as they rest between, or prepare to effect, the next shadow-creation. But none of these minor critical observations really matters – the production flows seamlessly from shadow to shadow and scene to scene, ‘scary’ is an integral component of a dreamscape, and seeing the dancers’ preparation makes the ultimate artistry all the more astonishing and magical.

Every dancer in the piece displays an abundance of skill and energy. The movement never stops. But as the dog/girl, Heather Jeane Favretto is the fulcrum around which everything else revolves. Several dancers have played the role since its creation. But Favretto, who appears to be part cuddly poodle and part hyperactive terrier, makes it look as if the role was made for her.

Playing with shadow and light may no longer be particularly innovative, but this production is far more than an avant-garde experiment. Shadowland is a treat for reasonably sophisticated children of all ages. It may not be The Nutcracker, or other ‘normal’ holiday fare – but theatrical magic in any form is particularly welcome at this time of year. It’s current run – this year – ends on December 6. Sometime between now and then, between shopping and eating and Nutcracker suites, it should be seen. And keep in mind that the performance doesn’t end until the Statue of Liberty swings.