Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 19 May 2019

Review: Pilobolus’ Shadowland at DWTC comes out of the shadows

The blend of dance and shadow theatre is a dream ticket

Shadowland is on show in Dubai. Courtesy Pilobolus
Shadowland is on show in Dubai. Courtesy Pilobolus

Four-decade old New York contemporary dance company Pilobolus offer something a little out of the ordinary on Dubai’s cultural calendar this weekend with their acclaimed modern dance meets shadow theatre meets circus performance coming of age tale Shadowland.

Set over the course of the overnight dreams of a sleeping teenage girl, the show takes us on a fantastical journey through the darkest recesses of the human subconscious. It mixes traditional dance with shadow play, taking place on a variety of different sized screens, and is a living tribute to what stunning visual effects can be achieved with the most basic of ingredients – in this case the human body, light and a projector.

The show does follow a narrative line of sorts as our heroine travels through the dream world, though its real selling point is the incredible shadow work. The dancers transform themselves into everything from undulating landscapes to giant flowers, mesmerising undersea creatures, cars, cafes, and even a giant dinosaur-meets Godzilla, tentacled beast that our heroine must fight off – all while dealing with the fact that in her own shadowy dream world, she’s forced to undertake her journey of discovery having already been transformed into a dog-girl hybrid reminiscent of Charles, the dog-headed anthropomorphic lead character in Spike Jonze’s video for Daft Punk’s Da Funk.


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In pictures: Scenes from Shadowland

Spectacular production Shadowland on its way to Dubai


On the subject of music videos, David Poe’s score, flitting from ambient backgrounds, to Tom Waits-esque proto-blues, to Gallic crooning, to chilled liquid drum’n’bass adds another element to proceedings, and keeps things moving along nicely, though at the preview performance we attended the sound technicians might have benefited from checking if Sheikh Rashid Hall’s volume switch had an extra notch on it as the performance could have been more striking with a little extra bombast.

The story itself, the tale of a young girl confronting her inner beast and the beasts in the world around her, and coming out of the other side inexorably changed, is essentially one big metaphor for adolescent awakening. Thematically, it put me in mind of Neil Jordan’s 1984 Gothic fantasy classic The Company of Wolves, though without the gore or terror of that particular tale of awakening – Shadowland is perhaps more akin to the scores of sugar-coated on the surface, but with a heart of pure darkness, ancient fairy tales that inspired Jordan's film, so families needn’t worry about terrifying their smaller members.

The story really is secondary though. This is, above all, a visual treat. It’s worth noting that Shadowland is Pilobolus’ first full-length shadow show. Previously, their work in the field had consisted largely of short vignettes on a particular theme or subject, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that some of the most striking visual moments in the show weren’t really even connected to the main narrative thrust of our heroine’s (meta) physical journey, but rather existed as such vignettes outside of the main story.

Perhaps equally unsurprising, then, is the fact that the biggest cheer of the evening came for the encore, which definitely was unrelated to the story. Over the years, Pilobolus have gained a reputation for interpreting the cities they visit in shadow form, and an already cheering audience was in rapture when the Burj Al Arab, Dubai Frame and the ubiquitous camels and falcons found themselves looming large on screen thanks to a mass of contorted human bodies and a backlight. Pilobolus certainly know how to please a crowd.

*Shadowland is at DWTC until Saturday, September 15. Tickets cost from Dh230 and are available from www.platinumlist.net

Updated: September 13, 2018 08:27 PM