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Jessica Abrams
Music and Dance Reviews
Performance Reviews
Valley Performing Arts Center at California State University, Northridge
United States
Greater Los Angeles
Northridge, CA

Pilobolus Overshadows Itself in Shadowland

by Jessica Abrams
October 7, 2016
Valley Performing Arts Center at California State University, Northridge
18111 Nordhoff Street
Northridge, CA 91330
(818) 677-3000
In 1971 a group of Dartmouth students whose dance experience was more or less limited to some classes offered by the college, were so taken with the art form that they formed a company and started making dances. Being novices, they didn’t face the restrictions of technique or the awareness of a history that may or may not have led them to that place, in that college, at that time. They took the name of a fungus found in cow dung and began creating dances that were athletic and structural and that celebrated the human body in all its infinite capability.

Forty-five years later Pilobolus is still a leading force in dance but also in a larger sphere where a modern dance company doesn’t often find itself: performing in the Academy Awards, making music videos and advertisements and appearing on Oprah. They have provided outreach programs for children and have essentially become a “brand” in that true twenty-first century, social-media driven way. It would be easy to suggest that the founding group of hippies (full disclosure: they may not have been; based on the time, place and name choice I’m imagining that they were) have strayed from their initial agenda.

But their hour-plus-long extravaganza Shadowland performed at Valley Performing Arts Center Sunday, October 2nd indicated it has not. As much epic storytelling ("The Odyssey," "Alice in Wonderland," "The Wizard of Oz," "Paradise Lost" and, yes, even the Bible come to mind) as it was dance, and as much dance as it was performance art, Shadowland was a multi-platform, evocative journey that stoked the senses and the heart in one visual smorgasbord of an hour.

Pilobolus experimented with shadow theater when it performed in the seventy-ninth Academy Awards, but in Shadowland the use of shadows behind a large screen took center stage. The story of a young girl’s nocturnal meanderings – again, "The Wizard of Oz" comes to mind – it combined dance and the use of bodies to create shapes in shadows to tell the most basic of coming-of-age stories in the most non-basic of ways.

The story opened with a young girl, our heroine, getting ready for bed. This nightly ritual was made that much more evocative and prescient with the music of David Poe, whose original score of the entire piece ranged from eerie to playful to homespun country, with each piece evoking such a panoply of emotions that it was almost impossible to locate the origin. But as the little girl’s journey passed through such stages as fighting a crew of demonic French chefs to hitching a ride with a cowboy to being kidnapped by a circus act to turning into a dog (yes, a dog: the dancer crooked her arm at the elbow and held it against her head so that, in shadow, it resembled a dog’s snout), the emotional moments were there, made that much more poignant by the music. All shapes were evoked via shadow from behind the screen, with dancers using their bodies to form tables, car windshields, a cauldron, and more. The various episodes were punctuated with the screen being lifted and the ensemble breaking out into movement: big, bold, sweeping moves, with bodies lifted effortlessly into space and somersaults – lots of somersaults. The sheer energy of the ensemble moving almost managed to outshine the shadow tricks which were just that: tricks. Amazing tricks, but not able to compete with the simple joy of bodies moving through space that brought those seven non-dancers together forty-five years ago. With Poe’s music egging them on, the dancers bounded across the stage, dancing, yes, but letting a sense of humor lace through it, as any group named after a fungus found in cow dung might do.

The screen allowed the shapes and shadows to play with depth perception, which added to the whimsical and yet emotionally powerful mood, such as when a giant hand came down and did its part to change the little girl, and send her off in a new direction. The spiritual significance should not be understated; as with the great stories in whose footsteps it followed, there is often an otherworldly presence to serve as guide. But this guide’s humor was, again, vintage Pilobolus.

After the little girl woke up from her dream with her parents standing beside her, after a stunning encore which had the audience at its feet, after circus confetti littered the floor, all that was left was the memory of this extraordinary journey – hers and ours; and as we moved from the theater and walked out into the California sunshine, we, like she, were profoundly changed.
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