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Dancing with shadows

Shadowland comes to the Annenberg Center this weekend.
Experience a world of shadows at the Annenberg Center. | Credit: Ian Douglas
Experience a world of shadows at the Annenberg Center. Credit: Ian Douglas

For more than 45 years, the inventive Pilobolus Dance Theater has amazed audiences by creating living sculpture from artfully arranged human bodies in a singular combination of dance and athleticism. A decade ago, when Hyundai challenged them to form the image of a car for a TV commercial, they added a new aspect to their repertoire – shadow-theatre, in which they craft fantastic images from silhouettes. They later conjured iconic film images from shadows for the 79th Academy Awards ceremony.

With the help of “SpongeBob SquarePants” head writer Steven Banks and songwriter David Poe, they created the company’s first evening-length piece, “Shadowland,” which they’ll perform at the Annenberg Center this weekend. The show follows a teenage girl’s journey into the land of shadows, which creative director Marc Fucik, on the phone from Pilopolus’ New York offices, calls “a pure dreamland fantasy.”

What has the addition of shadow-theatre to your bag of tricks brought to the company’s work?

Marc Fucik: It helps continue this idea of the magic and mysticism of the human bodies. People always come to us after the show and ask, “How did you do that? How could the human body contort and move in a way that brings, say, a bear to life?” It blows their minds, and that’s the magical realm that we live in.

What was the collaborative process like with Steven Banks and David Poe?

MF: All of our work is collaborative, so we were used to getting into the studio and bouncing ideas off of each other. We were led to Steven because of his out of the box approach to storytelling. How much further out can you get than “SpongeBob SquarePants?” David would sit in on our rehearsals and riff off of what we were doing, so we could use his music to figure out what a move should look like or how we should be moving through space.

How did you come to the fairy tale atmosphere of “Shadowland?”

MF: We stumbled into it. Our process is all about blurting out little phrases and ideas and images, and we started seeing a lot of similarities to things that caught everybody’s imaginations when we were kids, like “Alice in Wonderland” or the movie “Spirited Away.” The feelings that reading those books or seeing those movies elicited in us was started to fit into this transformational coming of age story like puzzle pieces.

How challenging is a show like this to stage and tour?

MF: Looking at it from the front, the show seems quiet and serene, flawless and fluid. What the audience sees is that silky, shadowy beauty, but behind the scenes it’s complete chaos. You’re throwing props or sliding them along the floor, jumping over someone to get somewhere else, running across the stage to change costumes, grabbing lights and turning them on. It’s two different worlds.

If you go:

Pilobolus: Shadowland
April 6-8 Annenberg Center
3680 Walnut St.
$30-$75, 215-898-3900
annenbergcenter.org