The Civic stage has been stripped back for Pilobolus dance company’s first full-length show, Shadowland. There’s a plain screen upstage, props are strewn around the edges and three costumes hang from the roof like shells of characters, which in retrospect seems depressingly prophetic.
The show loosely revolves around a young girl on the cusp of her sexual awakening, who finds herself trapped in a shadowy land where she encounters an incoherent sequence of unfamiliar landscapes and strange creatures, expertly created through bodily contortions: sinister French chefs, a dope-smoking truck driver, and a nightmarish circus that hums with a disquieting sexual energy.
It calls upon tired tropes that evoke the loss of innocence. It evokes the rocking tumult and anxious passion that stems from the desperation to experience more than you’re able. There are clever elements. There’s almost something poetic about using the constituent elements of childhood fantasies (shadows, dream logic, and adolescent mythologies) to portray the shift away from that time, and it seems fitting, too, to use shadow puppetry to evoke a period when everything seems off-kilter and unknown.
But it’s not clear who the show’s for: it’s too risqué for kids and too dull for adults and so exists instead in a kind of adolescence, but in doing so it caters for nobody. The best parts of the show are the real-life interludes: when we see the dancers themselves, not their shadows, performing onstage. They’re frenetic, slick, and bounding with energy, and seeing them highlights one of the major downfalls of Shadowland. Shadows are kids tricks: there’s always an explanation behind the magic, and though it requires craft it rests on a form of deception. To watch a skilled dancer is to experience real transcendence: bodies moving in ways you can’t quite fathom, impressively contorting with unnatural grace. To be robbed of that feels a shame.
That’s not to say there’s no craft: Shadowland showcases some delightful, clever and complex puppetry, but the lack of narrative makes it visually spectacular but extraordinarily dull. It’s skilful, but it’s not innovative. Shadow trick after shadow trick are presented with the seeming intention that the audience will be able to marvel at each, but without an arc, it ends up feeling like an extended firework show. There’s a sense of hunger, fear, and isolation, but nothing is sustained, nothing evoked for any clear reason.
It's the curtain call that captures the zeitgeist of the show best: we’re presented with scenes from New York (set to Alicia Keys’ ‘New York’) and we’re gifted scenes from Auckland – the Skytower, a kiwi, Eden Park, Piha - set to Dave Dobbyn’s ‘Slice of Heaven’. It’s a fantastically skilled montage of empty tokenistic images, all of which ultimately fail to create anything more significant than a lazy, surface-level narrative.
Shadowland plays at The Civic from 3 – 8 June
Tickets available through Ticketmaster