Shadows for a Dark Time: Pilobolus Opens ADF 2016

No one could have known, when planning this season’s American Dance Festival schedule, that when the summer of ’16 rolled around, we’d all be living a nightmare struggle, toting our little bundles of hope through hoop after hoop of danger and depravity, looking for love, looking for home, for self and for safety. But these artists, you know they run ahead of the curve. So with Pilobolus and Shadowland.


The dream begins in SHADOWLAND, the evening-length piece by Pilobolus that opened ADF 2016. At the DPAC through 6/18.  Photo: Grant Halverson.

The company has toured this work in Europe, but has just begun presenting it in the US, with a performance in New York in November, 2015. It’s presentation on ADF’s opening night reinforced the festival’s crucial role in disseminating new work by contemporary dance artists, and it highlighted the special relationship between Pilobolus and the ADF, which has presented the group’s work since its inception. Currently, 11 members of the troupe have studied in the ADF School or have worked with the festival in some capacity. The group comes to Durham every year, which gives audiences here an almost unequaled opportunity to follow its continual artistic change. (The dancer Eiko has pointed out that outside of New York, her biggest, longest-term audience is in Durham.)


“We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Pilobolus dances a dark tempest in SHADOWLAND, as ADF opens its 2016 season. Photo: Grant Halverson.

With Shadowland, Pilobolus has taken visual ideas we have seen earlier, in rawer states, to confidently developed presentation. For 8 or 10 years, they’ve been more and more interested in creating flows of imagery independent of those they make with their bodies, and with a cinematic unreeling of flat motion-pictures. Story has also been pushing its way into the dances. This work is nonverbal, but it is a linear narrative. Along with their dancing and their famous sculptural shape making, Pilobolus adds shadow puppetry techniques and animation tropes, and exerts a cinematic aesthetic on the mix. The immediacy of the bodies is interrupted and denied so many times that eventually one gives into the exuberant imagistic flow of this dance-theatre, and appreciates it for what it is. It’s very smart, rich in reference and symbol, if just a little predictable; it’s clever and funny and ominous–but it neither grabs you in the viscera nor releases endorphins, as Pilobolus’ pure dance works have been known to do.

Shadowland‘s a classic story. A very young woman, just feeling the stir of sexuality, poses and practices before a mirror. Noticed by her parents, she feels shame, and falls asleep to dream her fears and longings. There’s something of Colette’s Minne here, with her imagined adventures among the “Apaches” of the boulevards of Paris; there’s a hint of Clara from the Nutcracker, and of Alice in Wonderland, and more than a hint of Dorothy from Kansas: there’s no place like home, in the end. She’s an archetype–the sexually-budding female–and her lack of particularity allows us to view this slightly cautionary tale with a distanced calm. If some of the action had not been de-powered by its removal to two dimensions, it would have been very hard to take. There’s a lot of attempted violence against this girl, from the ubiquitous anonymous hands trying to go up her skirt, to men running at her with cleavers, to a giant figure who remakes her with a dog’s head and sends her down the road.

It is exactly this distancing that I find so unsatisfying. I’ve whined about it before (as early as 2008 and 2010), but with this beautifully constructed multimedia dance-theatre work, I finally get the point. I’d rather, personally, see all bodies all the time, but this is a different kind of stage art. And what if, in addition to being a story well shown, what if this  is a silent howl against the deforming gauntlet young girls endure, an objection to their objectification? What if it is a really subversive meta-statement on the struggles of real live dance against the flattening roller of electronic media? What if it is a Big Statement about loving one another, even if you’re a dog and the other is a…centaur?

Vive la danse, however theatrical. Continues through 6/18; if you go, be sure to stay for the adorable after-bows encore, with bulls and rainbows.


Pilobolus in SHADOWLAND, behind the screen in ADF opener at DPAC, 6/16/16. The production includes many cinematic references. Photo: Grant Halverson.

4 responses

  1. A​s usual, you parsed this performance with keen insight and appreciation of Pilobolus’s artistic evolution, despite your apparent annoyance and frustration with the story line. I also wanted more dance and would have gladly forgone the two-dimensional, silhouetted, often frenetic movements. The music, which was too loud throughout, varied from mostly ponderous to jagged and occasionally witty. Despite its cleverness, the piece seemed too long and in need of a ruthless editor among the gaggle of choreographers, composers, and visual artistes. I kept waiting for some genuine good will to befall the relentlessly tormented dog-girl. Thanks for linking to Siobhan Burke’s review in the NYT.

  2. Having seen Pilobolus’ ADF appearances for the last 16 years I, like you, am disappointed that so little of the exuberant, gymnastic “pure dance” work that has long been the hallmark of this company’s successful history is currently being presented; the occasional reprise of older creations is always a treat. Too often of late the new works have seemed to represent a deliberate – and not consistently satisfying – forced attempt to incorporate “modern technology” in the company’s work. This year’s “Shadowland” is a very polished, finished, and rewarding piece – making some of their recent seasons’ “shadow productions” seem like rehearsals of work that was still very much in the “workshopping phase”. Certainly “Shadowland” is ready for prime time, and the encore especially created for our Durham audiences is delightfully amusing and ever-so timely!

  3. Ah, it has begun again – your summer of self-indulgence in the arts tempered by the demands of an art critic. The Pilobolus piece looks and sounds haunting. Having never yet managed to see them in person, I would probably look with a totally uncritical eye.

    Love you,


    Anne Butterfield

    Anne Butterfield Company

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