Pilobolus Dance Theatre
The Civic, Auckland | June 3-9
Sometimes when you go to theatre, there’s an empathy with the people performing or putting on the show. You catch yourself saying, “I could do that” or “that’s not so hard.” This is not the case with Pilobolus Dance Company’s Shadowland.
A world-famous dance company from the USA, Pilobolus Dance Company impress us when they come onstage. They are incredibly lithe, acrobatic, and graceful performers. They are emotive without insisting upon themselves. They clearly know this work as well as they know the back of their hand, and yet they never seem like they’re going through the motions. It’s immediately apparent that we are in the hands of professionals. Despite the injury-defying feats they are performing, the audience can relax.
Shadowland has been billed as “the first theatrical event of its kind to tour the globe,” and as a coming of age story told largely through dance and human shadow puppetry, I genuinely believe them. We follow a teenage girl (Lauren Yalango) through her journey into adulthood in a dream world that is the titular Shadowland. She is chased around by island chiefs trying to cook her, joins the circus, goes on a road trip with a drifter, and in the play’s most unbelievable, yet surprisingly dark twist, has her head turned into a dog.
It’s a fascinating turn, and one that showcases what is both appealing and a little off-putting about the show. For all the talent of the performers—and make no mistake that these are clearly some of the world’s most accomplished performers—the story has one foot in simplicity and one foot in the abstract, and too occasionally leans hard towards one before snapping back to the other. The show is a collaboration between the company and writer Steven Banks and appears to be aimed at a family audience. The passages that lean towards simplicity are the most jarring for me, such as the road trip with a drifter and the island chief sequence. There is a slapstick vibe to it that undoubtedly worked for the children in the audience, but I wished for more complexity.
This complexity came with the circus sequence, an unabashedly dark and disturbing one, where the audience would applaud, and it became clear that we were not necessarily applauding the right thing. This kind of emotional complexity pops up now and again during the show, and it made me wish the show was more rife with it.
In saying that, there’s something to be said for accepting a show on its own terms. And for a show that is squarely aimed at families and not an adult audience, Shadowland is a success. The story is satisfying and well rounded, and is a tremendously gorgeous piece of theatre to sit back and watch. Shows like this that make me aware of just how much talent there is in the world that we don’t get to see, and for that reason alone, it’s worth seeing just to make sure that more talent like this can come here in the future.