Playing in the shadows

PRECISION REQUIRED: The extraordinary Shadowland performers, who create a dizzying array of images from their bodies.
PRECISION REQUIRED: The extraordinary Shadowland performers, who create a dizzying array of images from their bodies.

There we were, clustered around a campfire in our cave, gnawing on the charred haunch of an unlucky antelope - hairy and unwashed, a tad smelly; an evolving people, clad in the skins hacked from the very same animal we were spit-roasting for dinner.

The art of human speech was still a little way off, so we made do with grunts and gestures.

And to entertain each other through the long winter nights, we took turns standing in front of the fire and making spooky shadows of forest creatures upon the wall.

"Shadow play's a really primal, ancient thing," says actor, comedian and shadow enthusiast Steven Banks from his New York office. "Making shapes with shadows takes most of us straight back to our own childhood, but of course, it's far older than that.

In fact, it was probably one of the very first things people did. Ever since mankind has existed, you can bet some guy did shadow tricks by the fire on the wall of the cave."

Yes, but they would have been very simple tricks back then, wouldn't they? Playful monkey. Lofty giraffe. Fierce lion. Cavepeople certainly didn't stand on each other's shoulders to form the outlines of skyscrapers.

They didn't contort themselves into complex human sculptures that projected shadows of passing cars, psychotic chefs, or mutant bird people.

To witness shadows this strange and modern and marvellous, one would have to buy a ticket to Shadowland, a shadow dance show written by Banks and currently on its way to New Zealand.

With a background in theatre and stand-up, Banks has also written a host of plays and children's books, and scripted cult cartoons including Catdog, Jimmy Neutron and SpongeBob Squarepants.

Nine years ago, while head writer on Spongebob, he was commissioned to write Shadowland for Connecticut's Pilobolus dance troupe. That touring show has now been seen by more than half a million people worldwide.

"They approached me, and I was excited to see what we could achieve together. Ninety percent of modern dance companies are very boring and pretentious, but Pilobolus is different; they started in the early 70s with just three or four guys in college who only took dance because they thought it would be easy, but then they gradually formulated this amazing thing that no one had seen before.

When they perform, they're right on top of each other, bending themselves, interlocking like a giant jigsaw to project shadow shapes on a series of moveable screens. As you can imagine, it demands huge accuracy.

"If the dancers are off by as little as two inches, it will not work. The position of their bodies in space is crucial; from one angle, a hand just looks like a hand, but from a very slightly different angle, it looks like the tail of an elephant. There's no room for error."

Visit YouTube and you'll find dozens of jaw-dropping clips of the Pilobolus dancers in action.

Among them there are extraordinary shadow pieces from 60 Minutes and The Oprah Winfrey Show, an award-winning car commercial, and their famous breakthrough performances at the 2007 Academy Awards, in which they created shadow clips for all the films nominated for Best Picture.

The company has choreographed over 100 shadow pieces to date, but many consider Shadowland its greatest work: a full feature-length multi-media show combining dance, shadow work, acrobatics, kinetic sculpture and projected images, with a musical score by former Bob Dylan/Tori Amos collaborator David Poe.

"In a nutshell, it's a coming of age story about a young girl who goes to sleep then disappears into a surreal dream world," says Banks.

"There's a metaphor there for those changes during puberty, a time that's exciting, stressful, horrible and wonderful, all at once. Along the way she has to face many strange people and undergo life-changing adventures. She gets captured by a circus freak show because she's perceived as a freak, and gets transformed into a dog-girl, where the top half is a dog and the bottom half is human. There's action, magic, romance, some scary bits, and a lot of very moving moments, too. You get a lot of bang for your buck."

With no dialogue, the show has been able to sidestep language barriers in over 60 countries where it has been performed so far. Wherever it plays, says Banks, people of all ages are absolutely knocked out by it.

"Kids in particular can't believe what they're seeing, even with all the other kinds of hi-tech entertainment they have these days.

"A friend of mine took his son along to see Shadowland and afterwards they took him behind the screen and made this car around him, with him in the front seat. This kid could see all these bodies piled up around him in a seemingly arbitrary way, but when he saw the shadow on the backstage monitor, he was amazed: there he was, inside this perfect moving car, with the wheels spinning and the wind blowing and him driving it forward across the stage."

The Pilobolus dance company brings Shadowland to Auckland's The Civic from Tuesday 3 - Sunday 8 June. Bookings: or 0800 111 999.

Sunday Star Times