Darkness and Light
American Dance Festival
June 19-21

It’s an old, old story: A group of prisoners are chained to seats in a cave, facing its back wall, some distance away. The only light source is a fire, behind them. Between the fire and them are puppeteers, holding up figures casting shadows on the wall. The prisoners cannot move, or turn to see the puppeteers, the fire, the actual forms that cast the shadows, or the exit from the chamber.

In the 3rd century B.C., Plato used what we now call the Cave Allegory to say we tend to mistake the shadows of the real for the real itself. His Theory of Form asserts that the idea, or archetype, embedded in a material object has a reality superior to the object itself.

Athens debated the theory more than 2,000 years agoand Durham heatedly rejoined the debate after Thursday night’s world premiere of DARKNESS AND LIGHT, Pilobolus’ new collaboration with puppeteer Basil Twist. Why? The only time we actually saw Pilobolus’ dancers was before a stage-sized screen descended at the work’s beginning, and when it rose at the end. In between: shadows cast by dancers, manipulated by moving light sources and mirrors behind the screen.

The motif should sound familiar given the nonprofit’s recent huckster turns in car commercials, a fawning appearance on Oprah, and a stand at the Academy Awards. (Co-founder Jonathan Wolken has observed that more people saw the group’s November Oscars appearance “than in our entire on-stage history”now 37 years and counting.) But bearing Plato in mind, were those eager-to-please collections of constructed still imagesJames Bond’s gun! Oprah’s dog!really Pilobolus the ideal, or just Pilobolus the company? For that matter, is Darkness and Light? Or did Thursday’s premiere present the shadow of modern dancebut not the thing itself?

True, a lengthy first act had made some of us feel like trapped prisoners. The chemistry Otis Cook and Renée Jaworski found in Michael Tracy’s 2001 SYMBIOSIS eluded Jenny Mendez and Manelich Minniefee, and with two of his works presented back to back, some of the same concepts seemed needlessly reiterated during his LANTERNA MAGICA.

RAZOR : MIRROR, Wolken’s new work, constituted a disquieting, Tim Burton-esque freakshowuntil we learned it was an ostensible tribute to the nation’s largest victim assistance group against domestic violence. Though program notes said it was Wolken’s answer to the question “What is safe?” that those advocates posed, it ultimately appeared to discount or, worse, normalize violence among its characters. This quintet of misfit toys, each with its own set of nervous tics, doesn’t begin to play well with each other. They trade blows and bites, particularly in a mid-work duet where Mendez turns a flapper dance into a fusillade of kicks on Jun Kuribayashi’s crouching form. His subsequent series of Jekyll-and-Hyde quick changes could represent an abuser’s mercurial mood shifts.

But the most important thing about abusive relationships is to get out of them alive. Here, in a comparatively warm and fuzzy last movement, these characters wind up sleeping together since, deep down, they really love one another. I cannot image an ending more a disservice to people facing the nightmare of domestic violence. The conclusion isn’t presented with noticeable irony or critique. It only wants to comfort us: See, it says, they’re really not so bad.

It’s the lie that people in abuse desperately want to believe. It’s also the worst conceivable message those people could get.

Former Pilobolean Carol Parker has performed Martha Clarke’s NOCTURNE several times here in the past decade. By comparison, this trenchant look at aging and the aesthetics of dance seemed embarrassingly under-rehearsed last Thursday. How else to explain Jaworski’s withered upper body’s contortionsand the inappropriately nimble legs that suddenly moved it, repeatedly, from place to place?

The cascade of images in Darkness and Light suggested a number of things: microscopic organisms caught on film, a luminescent fish display at an aquarium, a planetarium laser show, even a 3-D film by Robert Wilson. By contrast, a reader of our ADF blog has likened it to a screen saver. It’s a novel variant on an old argument: instead of saying “my child could do that,” now we substitute “my laptop” instead.

During the Thursday talkback, some said, “If we could see what they were doing, we’d value the end result more.” That’s unlikely: If we don’t value an artwork on sight, seeing the processor miles of codebehind it isn’t going to make us. More important to me than the question “Is it dance?” are these questions: “Is it art? If so, is it good?”

For those crowd-pleasing stills Pilobolus has lately vended during televised performances are not. They’re neat tricks, temporarily in vogue. While they are, they may generate publicity and cash. I still defy anyone to seriously compare them with A Selection or Gnomen.

The sections in Darkness and Light don’t hang together. They’re set side by side, and don’t relate to each other. This gives them the flavor of a first result of a new technology, recently acquired. That factor qualifies Darkness and Light‘s success as an artwork. Its shadows pale as well when compared with the two works mentioned above. A closing set bore unfortunate resemblance to graphics at a rock show.

Still, I experienced true wonder, before, when the projected image traveled around and among the limbs of a group of assembled dancers. It was almost as if their shadows, illuminated by a parchment-colored light, seemed cast by some firelight behind me.

No, the images weren’t real, I know. But the feeling I got from them was.

E-mail Byron Woods at bwoods@indyweek.com.