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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

How Japanese anime inspired shadow theatre group Pilobolus

The modern dance company takes more groundbreaking steps in the Middle East, this time in Dubai

Pilobolus’s shadows are inspired by Japanese anime. Courtesy Pilobolus
Pilobolus’s shadows are inspired by Japanese anime. Courtesy Pilobolus

Modern dance company Pilobolus is no stranger to the region. In January this year it became the first international modern dance company to perform in Saudi Arabia, and to stage the first performance to feature male and female dancers with shows in Riyadh. In 2014, Pilobolus appeared in Abu Dhabi. Now, the company is making its debut in Dubai and its globally successful production, Shadowland, promises to take audiences far beyond the traditional landscape of contemporary dance, and, as the name implies, into the mystical land of shadows.

Creative director Mark Fucik explains how the company, which has been around since 1972, began to develop its distinctly modern take on the ancient art of shadow theatre. “We initially came into shadows when we decided to try and create a car in silhouette with our bodies, since that’s what we’re known for, kind of stacking and using our bodies to create images,” Fucik says. “From there it went onto ‘could we make something with a shadow?’ We wanted to do it in a not ‘normal’ way, like with hand puppets, but using maybe five or six different bodies and a projector to kind of twist and contort them into different shapes and create a shadow.”

These experiments went on for many years, alongside the company’s more traditional contemporary dance work. A watershed moment came in 2007, however, when the company was asked to perform a short shadow set at the 79th Oscars ceremony in Hollywood, California.

“From there people started having us at corporate events and so on, and after a couple of years we had all these great visuals and images, all these fun things we could make, and we were like ‘OK – why don’t we see if we can make a whole evening’s show based around these shadows’,” Fucik says.

The company still works as a traditional modern dance company too, and Fucik says that audiences can expect much more than just shadows at the Dubai performances.

“You don’t just get the shadows, there’s live dance and theatre in front of the screen too, and the screen rolls up and down so it isn’t always there.”

Shadow theatre is nothing new, of course, with records dating the art form back to China more than 2,000 years ago, but Fucik says his company is proud to have taken its own approach to the form.

“We did look at a lot of the older shadow stuff, and were influenced by it in terms of technique, but when it came down to it we’re very much about collaboration and improvisation, so what it came down to was we spent hours just in front of the screen with the projector, just seeing what we could create,” he says.

Fucik adds that, perhaps the biggest influence on his company’s version of shadow theatre was a much more modern art form – Japanese anime.

“We were heavily influenced by things like Spirited Away (Hayoa Miyazaki’s 2001 film), and the way those shadows kind of move and creep around, so as we created this idea,” he notes. “We realised we want to see the dancers all the time, so they never leave the stage, but then we have these ‘shadow casters’ who kind of creep around the edge of the stage and create these crazy images on

the screen, then they slink off again and hide.”

Would-be viewers who are worried the show may be a little too avant-garde for their taste need not panic. Fucik says that Shadowland does follow a traditional narrative – the coming-of-age tale of a young girl who is drawn into the world of shadows and embarks on a thrilling journey through it. There’s a script from Spongebob Squarepants writer Steven Banks, and a score from acclaimed musician and film score composer David Poe, too.

Fucik says that the unusual nature of the show is one of its selling points, and he’s actually quite pleased when audiences aren’t entirely sure what to make of it.

“We’ve toured this show all around the world – China, South America, Europe, the Middle East. We do get some ‘what is going on?’ reactions but we take that as a compliment,” he says. “We want audiences to say, ‘I have no idea what this is, but I don’t care, it’s so cool to watch.’ Reactions are different in different places. Different situations and characters resonate more or less in different cultures, but mostly the reactions are just ‘wow. This is cool.’ I just can’t stop watching.”

Shadowland will run for three nights from September 13 to September 15 at the Dubai World Trade Centre. For more go to www.shadowland.ae

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