Image Credit: Ian Douglas

When you see a giant hand emerge, don’t worry. It plays into the storytelling. Manipulating shadows, changing shapes. You are about to dive headfirst onto the stage of someone else’s subconscious.

You are about to fall into Shadowland.

The show returns to the UAE for a second time with a staging at the Dubai World Trade Centre from September 13-15. It played in Abu Dhabi in 2014. “The UAE audience [has] embrace[d] this production and we have been honoured to be asked back to tell you this tale,” says Mark Fucik, creative director of modern dance company Pilobolus, in an interview with Gulf News tabloid!.

It all begins at naptime. When a teen who yearns for independence falls asleep, she finds herself at the start of a surreal adventure. Those creepy forms at the edge of the bed, they aren’t 2D figments of the mind anymore, they are creatures that must be dealt with.

Drama and comedy intertwine in this coming-of-age tale where monsters slip and glide out of the wings, and desires take flight. Slowly, our protagonist must learn what it means to be an adult.

 [The show] carries themes that will always be associated with our journeys from youth to adulthood.”

 - Mark Fucik | Pilobolus creative director

Dreams are like rubber bands that stretch the coil of imagination and allow for things deemed impossible in the real world. So perhaps it’s fitting that instead of colour and sparkle to brew fancy, the world-class Pilobolus troupe uses the interplay of light and dark to create the illusions of malleable silhouettes, unreal beasts, entire cities that rock with music and lanes that appear and vanish seemingly at will.

The Pilobolus company was formed in 1971 by two students in Dartmouth College. Since then, the group has performed on Broadway, at the Oscars and the Olympic games. They’ve twirled through routines on television, in movies and commercials, and even in schools.

In 2009, they came up with a new idea: Shadowland, which melds shadow theatre with acrobatics and ballet. “Shadowland grew from the collective imaginations of the artistic team and the dancers. We had a menagerie or incredible shadow images that were crying out for a story to be created with them,” says Fucik. The California dancer joined Pilobolus in 2001 and went on to work with the company in different capacities, including teacher and choreographer. “And we work to create a wonderful world for them to inhabit,” he explains.

The story of Shadowland was conceived in collaboration with Steven Banks, who was the lead writer for the animated series SpongeBob SquarePants. It has a rhythmic original score by American musician, producer and film composer David Poe, who has toured with artists such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, The Jayhawks and Tori Amos.

And to keep that magical element going there’s that introduction to the giant hand; it plays into the teen’s changing thoughts, dreams - and nightmares - and aspirations. Plus it pulls double time to help set the stage.

Shadowland is a timeless story of growing up. It carries themes that will always be associated with our journeys from youth to adulthood,” Fucik says. Choppy waters, indecision, a crisis of confidence, acceptance — the subject, he assures, will resonate. “Shadowland is for the whole family.”

And as in life, by the end of the ride, the adult is made.

Without the distractions of the kaleidoscope expected from a dream sequence, the group is free to indulge in what they do best, storytelling. “The constraints of the shadows forced us to become more inventive and thus more creative,” says the creative director. The screen and projector have long been companions of this group, but the real talent lies in the nimble dancers who must contort in perfect sync to create the story.

It’s a game of precision — sharp glares can destroy a silhouette; a dusting of illumination can blur the picture.

“Learning how to manipulate and move into and out of the lights was challenging. Getting the correct angles to create to shapes we wanted,” he says.

Fortunately the body-bending acrobats of the troupe have had enough practice to create an array of convincing animals (dogs, elephants) and skylines (such as New York) just by the clever manipulation of a few props, limbs and light.

Fucik calls the show “mesmerising, elegant and magical.”

“Everyone’s experience will be different. We hope that everyone leaves inspired and with a sense of awe and amazement,” he says.

Can the giant hand pull off the magic trick? The answer lies in the shadows.

Don’t miss it!

Tickets to Shadowland, at the Dubai World Trade Centre from September 13-15, are Dh230, and available online.


What does Pilobolus mean?

Pilobolus is named after a barnyard fungus that propels its spores with extraordinary speed, accuracy and strength.

What is shadow play?

An ancient storytelling technique that uses cut-out figures held between a source of light and a screen to create the illusion of animation.

Shadowland: A review
It’s always magical to watch a transformation, whether it’s from a child to an adult or from one animal to another. Drape the transfigurations in shadows and you have magic.

Watching Shadowland, which weaves together elements of storytelling with puppet mastery, acrobatics and ballet, is seeing a metamorphosis up close. The story begins with when a girl enacting her big dreams is interrupted by her well-meaning parents.

Embarrassed at being caught in role-play she goes to bed upset. And she enters dreamland - where thoughts become action and the good can turn into the bad and vice-versa at the drop of a screen.

Using the magical interplay of light and dark, projectors and a few - oh so few - props, we see backgrounds change, silhouettes shift and a coming-of-age story told through music and movement. The act is quite magnetic. The girl must battle monsters and circus masters, then transform into a dog, find love and finally bloom before waking up to find herself a changed person. The nuances of dreaming and the fluidity of sequences is choreographed perfectly.

The graceful dancers through limbs and light create illusions of giant monsters and buildings, animals and chairs. This is almost-vaudevillian tale with comedy and crisis and exploration, which lends itself well to the surreal state of sleep. The world-class Pilobolus perform a relatable tale of growing up and changing. But really, more than anything else, they play out an entertaining piece of theatre that’ll have you smiling till the very end. [Plus there’s something special waiting when the tale comes to a close - an ode to the UAE.]