In Shadowland, Pilobolus create a vast and varied imaginative landscape, through which we follow a young girl on the brink of growing up. On a rare visit to London, this American dance theatre group stunned audiences at the Peacock Theatre on their opening nights earlier this week.

Shadowland © John Kane
© John Kane

Sporting the head of a dog, a young girl runs away from the circus, falls in love with a centaur and befriends all kinds of weird and wonderful creatures (human, animal and vegetable), both on land and under the sea, on her journey to a castle inhabited by dogs, where she’s magically transformed back to her original form before she returns home. This utterly unique rite of passage story is told through an equally unique visual framework: the world of shadows. The dancers become lifesize, animate shadow-puppets (and puppeteers), and almost all props are created by their bodies too.

In front-of-screen scenes, Dog girl (Lauren Yalango) tumbles through the air, fluidly thrown, caught, rocked and swung by other company members. Yalango is handled like a huge human puppet - each joint and body part is manipulated by her visible puppeteers. She swims through the air in fleeting transit, her feet barely skimming the floor before she bounces inhumanly high above her fellows’ heads. A huge blue moon  with a gigantic yellow-orange sun in its wake crosses the stage above her sleeping body – still in full view – before she’s prodded awake by an ominous, large shadowy hand. In a somewhat menacing moment, this inexplicable higher being transforms her into a sitting, licking, ear-twitching obedient dog, yet, thinking better of it, gives her back her body and leaves her with the dog’s head. In a merging of worlds, dog girl slept in front-of-screen reality, yet wakes in shadowland, where she ventures on (albeit with an unfamiliar face) to build relationships with a phantasmagoria of colourful creatures in this ephemeral world. 

Shadowland © Emmanuel Donny
© Emmanuel Donny

Putting a screen at the centre of a proscenium arch stage might seem like a distancing device – taking the characters further away from the audience – but Pilobolus manage to do precisely the opposite. If anything, the characters are more vivid (they’re certainly larger than life, literally) when they are behind the screen, rather than in front of it. We’re eased gently and dynamically into shadowland, given the time beforehand for a proper introduction to our focal character – facial expressions and all – so that we feel we know her even after she becomes “a hole in light.”

The screen serves to whisk us one step further away from reality, and if you hadn’t already suspended your disbelief at the door, the shift from dancers bodies to their shadow counterparts, as our little girl slips deeper into her dreams, will certainly do so. Pilobolus have exactly the right balance between the two - reality and dream/shadowland - we shift in and out, the screen hoisted up or unfurled at regular intervals, so we get a good share of both imaginative, visual creatures and up-close views of the dancers themselves.

Pilobolus tread a fine line between implied imagination (or dream-world) and reality, negotiating the influence one has upon another. Although her journey and the fleeting, transient characters dog girl meets are entirely dreamt and probably forgotten in the harsh light of day, the whole experience seems to have an important bearing on her life once back in reality. This is not only a beautifully told visual story, but a journey of discovery; Pilobolus explore the power of the darkness to transform and reveal who we really are.

Pilobolus: Shadowland © Emmanuel Donny
Pilobolus: Shadowland
© Emmanuel Donny

The precision with which this talented troupe perform is outstanding: Yalango’s resemblance to a four-legged friend is uncanny; the company create creatures, props, shape and beings, actually becoming a myriad of different characters, each one utterly believable in its shadow form. Despite all logic shouting that these creations were simply black shapes, spaces absent of light, each character depicted was vivid, colourful and dynamic – far from an absence of anything. Pilobolus conjure such a convincing depiction of dog girl’s dream-world that the audience barely have to put their imaginations into gear before being utterly transported.