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Pilobolus in Shadowland. (Photo: Emmanuel Donny)

Pilobolus in Shadowland. (Photo: Emmanuel Donny)

Escape into the world of shadow illusion this November when modern dance troupe Pilobolus brings its evening-length “Shadowland” to an American stage for the first time.

Shadowland, running at New York University’s Skirball Center Nov. 20 – Dec. 6, is the story of a young girl coming of age in the strange and fascinating world of shadows. Well received abroad, the production combines Pilobolus’ athletic and elegant technique with its popular experiments of melding and moving bodies to create another world behind a screen . The performances will also feature a world-premiere finale that plays tribute to New York City.

{Dd} recently caught up with Pilobolus executive producer Itamar Kubovy, who is also one of the co-creators of Shadowland.

Pilobolus executive producer Itamar Kubovy. (Photo: Pilobolus)

Pilobolus executive producer Itamar Kubovy. (Photo: Pilobolus)

{Dd}: How did the concept or idea for Shadowland begin?

Itamar Kubovy: “It’s a funny way in which this thing developed. Ironically, it’s sort of a lesson in art and commerce. We received an e-mail in 2006 from a guy in an ad agency in Texas, who asked me if we could make a car commercial just using bodies. We talked…and we had no idea what we would do and he said, ‘Could you do it behind a screen?’ We said, ‘OK, let’s see if we can and we went out to LA with about 12 people and shot a really good commercial. We made a car commercial for Hunduai. And it worked out very well because somehow we were able to convey the idea that has always been at the core of what Pilobolus has believed in: the way in which bodies can intermingle and work together to form objects, or to form creatures, always switching between I am a dancer and I am performing — and we are a kind of unbelievable weight sharing clump and we are moving around. That kind of switch made a lot of sense when you started thinking about bodies rolling and then forming a shape, forming essentially any shape, by merging in this kind of shadow world.

Shortly after that I got a call from someone who had seen the show and who was producing the Oscars — a woman named Laura Ziskan, who is from New York but lived in LA and was producing there for a long time. She said, ‘You know it’s incredible because so much about the Oscars is really about this aspirational idea, about how people can do amazing things and how people can achieve amazing things using their ingenuity, but necessarily by being in some kind of extremely unique high-art world. So with that as an assignment we made this work for the movies and that worked out pretty well.

And then we ended up having a lot of opportunities to go make little things, little three-minute things for kings, queens, sheikhs, and corporations. And truly we were in 30 to 40 countries in the next couple of years. Then we got home and figured out we had made all of these little things but we have never really looked at the shadow world and the shadow work as something we could make a full energy, full concentration serious piece out of. So we started, and we tried and we worked for about nine months on this. What was eventually born was this creature called Shadowland, which we have never brought to the U.S. before.

“So it’s this kind of amazing experience watching this thing because it is like you are half inside a live movie half inside a rock concert and half following a really simple and very innocent story about a young girl who sort of discovers her womanhood or comes of age or discovers her independence.”

What we tried to do is to think about what was the most innocent and most emotionally driven fable that we could tell using these shadows. But you can’t just tell any story because you are limited with what you can do with the shadows. Then we thought well let’s get someone who is really good at telling these stories so we called up Stevens Banks, a head writer for SpongeBob SquarePants; he helped us a lot. Then we called up a guy named David Poe, who is a rock/indie songwriter and composer, he totally got it. It was really the combination of effort from a lot of people, but it kind of had this organic and weird way of being created much as Pilobolus always does. Because there were a bunch of us in the room it always kind of seemed to happen that way.

What is interesting is that shadows aren’t dancers; they aren’t people they’re really in a way somewhere between reflections and puppets. The dancers are constantly moving the screen up and down the whole performance and you are constantly seeing people go in front and behind the screens. Their shape and presentation changes enormously when they do that. So it’s this kind of amazing experience watching this thing because it is like you are half inside a live movie half inside a rock concert and half following a really simple and very innocent story about a young girl who sort of discovers her womanhood or comes of age or discovers her independence. But instead of puberty she goes to Shadowland and it all takes place one night of her dream.

Pilobolus in Shadowland. (Photo: Emmanuel Donny)

Pilobolus in Shadowland. (Photo: Emmanuel Donny)

{Dd}: After its European premiere in 2009, Shadowland has been seen by over half a million people and received great reviews. Do you anticipate the American premiere to be received differently and have you made changes to accommodate this?

IK: Obviously you never know what’s going to happen. You never know what ties into people’s moment. What I do know is that there is an enormous amount of true wonder in this performance that makes you just amazed at the actual technique and the performances are fantastic, jaw dropping. We did make some changes, not as much as trying to second-guess an audience, but we felt coming back there were a couple of things that we wanted to change or replace. We had the opportunity to come back to it, which is rare and awesome. Also over the course of this time the piece has grown so much and we have learned so much. This was really our baby and now it has come into its own. So I think it will be very new. Now that shadow-work has started spreading around and people have started finding different mixtures of this technique. But no one has really managed to put on a real narrative show that is really compelling; sometimes you’re like oh I guess I understand the story… I think that people find logic in Shadowland.

“The body is a way to express things simply and directly. In a time that we are so inundated by so other forms of expression there is a kind of relief and a kind of ritual, a festive quality with just the idea of having bodies interacting in this way.”

{Dd}: I have noticed in your career you have worked in many different creative mediums and collaborations. Why do you feel you are drawn to working with dancers and bodies?

IK: You know first of all, being at Pilobolus has taught me an enormous amount about bodies and what they are about. But the bigger picture is that we live in a time where people do not always understand the direct consequences of their actions, if you want to take a photograph you push a button and pick between 50 different filters and you have it. The custom shirt is not really a custom shirt because a machine makes it…Wait a minute this is not some guy sewing you a shirt?! So in light of that to be working in a medium with live people that requires people to be present and away from the city and sort of focusing in this way on things that are human and hand made and related to touch and related to physical presence, that feels radical. The body is a way to express things simply and directly. In a time that we are so inundated by so other forms of expression there is a kind of relief and a kind of ritual, a festive quality with just the idea of having bodies interacting in this way. It is this visual communication that kind of universality that language doesn’t convey that has become more noble.

{Dd}: How do you think Shadowland fits into that larger Pilobolus repertoire?

IK: It’s super interesting because given the fact that we have been performing it abroad and that it is a full-evening show and that it does use shadows we thought of it as a very different creature from everything else. In the past few months, as people have started imagining it to be in some way integrated with the idea of Pilobolus. I think everyone comes and talks about it as a very Pilobolus work. It’s not a different thing entirely; spiritually, the people who made it are the same people who imagined the story the same techniques involved combining of bodies both in front and behind the screen. When you actually think about it it feels really straight in the center of a new step for Pilobolus and at the same time a continuation of the same things we all believe in. It’s extremely true to the company’s way of thinking.

Written by Morgan Beckwith

After graduating from Walnut Hill School of the Arts in 2009, Morgan Beckwith went on to dance at Southern Methodist University, performing in ballets ranging from classical undertakings such as Balanchine’s Serenade to the works of contemporary choreographers Adam Hougland and Jessica Lang. While at SMU Morgan decided to take on a double major in Art History, earning the senior departmental distinction award, along with interning at the Christie’s auction house Dallas regional office. She has worked toward combining her passions for dance and critical art writing with endeavors such as the grant-funded research with Mystic Contemporary Ballet. Morgan worked as a booker for the NBC broadcasting of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.