Shapeshift­ing in sil­hou­ette Pilobo­lus’ Shad­ow­land


Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Michael Wade Simp­son For The New Mex­i­can

Pilobo­lus, the dance com­pany named for a type of fun­gus com­monly known as the “hat thrower,” with spores that travel at high speeds and stick wher­ever they land, has been around for more than 45 years. How­ever, it wasn’t un­til Pilobo­lus was com­mis­sioned over a decade ago to cre­ate a sil­hou­ette out­line of a Hyundai Santa Fe for a car com­mer­cial that they be­gan ex­plor­ing bod­ies in shadow. At the Academy Awards in 2007, the troupe was fea­tured mor­ph­ing be­hind a screen into images that sug­gested many of the pre­vi­ous year’s films, in­clud­ing the pen­guins in Happy Feet, a loaded mini­van for Lit­tle Miss Sun­shine, and the ob­vi­ous for Snakes on a Plane. Shad­ow­land, Pilobo­lus’ evening-length dance and theater work, which they bring to the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter on Tues­day, Feb. 28, in­cludes danc­ing both in and out of shadow.

The com­pany had its be­gin­nings in a dance­com­po­si­tion class at Dart­mouth Col­lege in 1971 when three stu­dents — Moses Pendle­ton, Jonathan Wolken, and Steve John­son — chore­ographed their first work, “Pilobo­lus.” They were joined by four other dancers in­clud­ing their teacher. From the start, there was a provoca­tive earth­i­ness and sen­sual ground­ing to their work. Early Pilobo­lus pieces of­ten fea­tured dancers piled onto and wrapped around one an­other to cre­ate in­ter­est­ing shapes.

Ac­cord­ing to Renée Ja­worski, artis­tic di­rec­tor of Pilobo­lus, be­fore the use of sil­hou­ettes, two dancers could cre­ate a crab, three be­came a jel­ly­fish, and a “bot­tle rocket” needed two dancers throw­ing, three catch­ing, and one small dancer fly­ing through the air. Af­ter the use of sil­hou­ettes, the same group of dancers could start as a pack of dogs, then be­come a mov­ing car, and then an ele­phant. There were more nar­ra­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties.

“Hon­estly? I think this be­came a phe­nom­e­non for Pilobo­lus be­cause shadow images show up on YouTube re­ally well, and the com­mer­cials we made were re­ally pop­u­lar, even won awards,” Ja­worski said. “We fi­nally de­cided it was time to use the idea for our­selves. We just needed to fig­ure out how we wanted to do it, and what we wanted to say.”

De­vel­op­ing an evening-length piece be­came a col­lab­o­ra­tion over sev­eral years be­tween the dancers; the directors of the com­pany, who of­ten de­velop work us­ing im­pro­vi­sa­tion; and Steven Banks, lead writer at the time for SpongeBob SquarePants, who was brought in to help de­velop a sto­ry­line for the work. David Poe com­posed an orig­i­nal score. “We picked Steven Banks be­cause he came from the car­toon world, but he was also a mime, so he un­der­stood bod­ies,” Ja­worski said.

“It’s magic, the mo­ment you see dancers shift­ing into some other shape. It takes you out of your­self. We’ve al­ways cre­ated worlds on stage. The ba­sis of all our dances is the dancers fig­ur­ing out how to live in these worlds.” Shad­ow­land is a com­ing-of-age tale. Us­ing pro­jec­tions, dance, sil­hou­ettes, and mu­sic, the com­pany tells the story of a young girl who learns about fear, love, and ac­cept­ing her par­ents, Ja­worski said.

Dur­ing de­vel­op­ment it be­came clear that an en­tire evening of sil­hou­et­ted dancers wouldn’t work. “Not be­ing able to see faces up on the stage was a prob­lem,” she said. “The artis­tic chal­lenge be­came how to make the tran­si­tion be­tween dancers be­com­ing dogs and cars and ele­phants, and dancers be­com­ing peo­ple. We kept try­ing to fig­ure out the best way to go back and forth. Fi­nally we re­al­ized you just do it, and the au­di­ence goes along with you.”

Shad­ow­land has toured ex­ten­sively, trav­el­ing beyond the U.S. to 31 coun­tries. A new pro­duc­tion, Shad­ow­land 2: The New Ad­ven­ture is tour­ing in Ger­many. “It’s not a se­quel. We were play­ing around more with the idea of how shad­ows and live dance can in­ter­act.” There are other Pilobo­lus casts who tour reper­tory works. “New works are be­ing cre­ated,” Ja­worski said. “We like hav­ing long form and short forms of work.” Pilobo­lus also has outreach pro­grams and a com­mer­cial unit, in­volved in awards shows and pro­duc­ing com­mer­cials. “We do a lot of prod­uct launches,” she said.

On tour, the Shad­ow­land cast cre­ates a spe­cial trib­ute to each place they ap­pear in. “At Penn State, there was a fa­mous ice-cream shop which we recre­ated. In Asheville, it was all about craft beer and rock climb­ing. We like to talk to peo­ple, see what’s go­ing on, read the lo­cal news­pa­pers and ask around for funny anec­dotes. There’s no telling what will show up on stage in Santa Fe,” Ja­worski said.

Pilobo­lus, photo Ian Dou­glas

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