News: Behind the Shadowland screens with Pilobolus

Wednesday 19 March 2014 by Carole Edrich

Over many years US based Pilobolus Dance Theatre have evolved a unique style of performance which combines shadow theatre with dance, circus and music, using multiple moving screens of different sizes and shapes to create a performance that merges projected images and front-of-screen choreography – and inspiring many similar productions around the world. Shadowland (at the Peacock Theatre until 30 March) grew out of a 2007 performance at the 79th Academy Awards and was developed with Steven Banks, the lead writer for the animated series SpongeBob SquarePants. Carole Edrich was allowed a peek behind the scenes and talked to Lauren Yalango (creative collaborator and Dog-Girl in the show) and Christopher Grant, performer and special activities coordinator…

Shadowlands is the story of a young girl’s voyage of personal discovery through a series of adventures in dreams. While each adventure is engaging in its own right, the strength of the production comes from the precise physicality of the dancers and the phantasmagoric panoply of protagonists they create. Whether centaur, castle or car, seahorse, ship or spider, every element is formed from a combination of the dancer-gymnasts’ own bodies, projected light and a few props.

Photos:Carole Edrich

When the giant hand of a god reaches down to change the girl into a dog, her elbow becomes its snout and closed fingers waggling ears while she is close to the screen and he to the light source. Three men creating the dog-girls’ bed segue into the sea of her dreams. Each petal and set of leaves of a flower is created by each of six different performers, each aligned precisely between light source and projector to form a quivering whole. Hands become crabs, six dancers meld into a beautiful seahorse while four together form a castle keep. While the contortions required by the performers are themselves fascinating, it’s the combination of contortion and light projection that makes the piece a coherent whole.

Think of the large screen upon which shadows are projected as the base of a triangle and the apex a huge light source. Anything inside it shows as a shadow on the screen. Since the light spreads with distance, something near to the source will cast a larger shadow than if it’s further away. Large shadow creations that seem to be running towards the audience are actually moving away. The dancers take extra care near the light source; everything is so much enlarged even a tiny twist of the torso can have a massive effect.

Photos:Carole Edrich

So when Dog Girl looks up to the god and puts her hand in his, she is very close to the screen while the god is very close to, and on one side of, the light source. Their hands aren’t touching, but they’ve positioned themselves with reference to spikes (marks on the floor) and checked how they look either on the screen itself or on one of the monitors arrayed just offstage on the left and the right. Lauren told me that sometimes they can see nothing, in which case “we rely on muscle memory and hope”.

She continues: “Everything is back to front. We even fly in the signs back-to-front. We have to fight our intuition”. Chris adds; “as a dancer you’re trained to work on what feels right, but in shadow we look for ‘bad yoga’. That means if you’re in a totally awkward shape, your t-shirt is in your mouth and someone is sitting on your face, you know it’s going to look great!”

“Each light has its own personality and quality and helps create the world in its own way,” says Chris, explaining that light sources are named to avoid confusion. The big one that makes clearly defined shadows is ‘Christine’ and they bring in ‘Sonia’ if Christine fails. Wooden baffles stop Christine’s light, and a fabric iris can make the source smaller or larger. Most are bright and very hot. Props have sometimes been burned right through and they’ve learned not to look into the lights, after ditching protective goggles because they fogged up. ‘Cans’ give what Lauren calls “a circle of dream light” while candles are eerily glowing small sources.

Photos:Carole Edrich

While in the sea of dreams, Dog Girl’s body appears to ripple as if taking its shape from the waves. The movement is so fluent that you can’t help wondering if she is somehow suspended. She’s not. Chris explains “We [the three men supporting her] have to move and she [Dog Girl] responds. It’s a kind of conversation.” Lauren adds: “You have to be strong, supple and steady. You need to think of not having bones. All of your body has to adopt a soft texture but your muscles are engaged, like water but with staccato strength.”

The dancers’ voices also inform their work. “It helps us be our characters,” says Chris. The noises they make also seems to help the group with timing too. The development process itself is also group effort, as Lauren explains: “Pilobolus is always a collaboration between dancers and directors, we are all playing together. It all comes from improvisation based on playful exploration.” “That makes it much more fun for us as dancers, as we have creative ownership,” adds Chris.

There’s no toiling away in front of dark studio mirrors for rehearsals, as the troupe rehearses with the same set-up they’d encounter on stage. This results in a much easier transition to new venues, which is why they were able to perform after less than an hour of on-stage preparation on their first night in London.
Technicians set up the main screen and projector and everything else is managed by the dancers in what is quite a cramped space. Lauren says “We take the main screen everywhere – and that includes the floor behind the screen too. Even though our techs have plans and know all the measurements, they know exactly where to put Christine and the screen and projector, for some reason it always changes and we need to recheck our spikes.”

Touring for 10 months a year is a punishing schedule. Chris says “it’s more fun and more challenging, as when you come on board you know that you’re going to have to learn at least one other role [to spell out other people]”. Lauren continues: “We only had 45 minutes to set up [on the first night here in London]. Setting up in a new theatre isn’t as serious as setting up with a new partner, but the second night always feels better. You have the feel of the stage and the space, and it’s ‘alright, I know this’. It’s like a second date.” Now I know how it works I plan to go back for a third.

Pilobolus Dance Theatre – Shadowland
at Peacock Theatre until Sun 30 March 2014

Carole Edrich is a dance photographer and photojournalist who writes regularly for Dance Today. See more of her work on

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