Pilobolus’s “Hapless” Wonderland

Did you read Art Spiegelman’s Maus comic books in high school, like I did? If so, you’ll probably be surprised by Hapless Hooligan in “Still Moving,” Spiegelman’s collaboration with the ever-popular Pilobolus dance company. The Maus books were brutal, desperate, heavy; I expected Hapless to be in the same vein. But it’s not–at all. Hapless is, instead, a zany, joyful, down-the-rabbit-hole adventure. It’s also a brilliantly realized combination of animation, shadowplay, and dance.

Hapless tells the story of Hap and his lady love Lulu, who are continually separated in life but united in death. Simple enough; the genius is in the telling of that story. For the majority of the piece, dancers silhouetted behind a screen–a Pilobolus trademark–interact with Spiegelman’s drawings, which are projected on that same screen. It’s a format that transforms the dancers into living cartoons, who can sometimes manipulate their animated world but are more often at its mercy. (Hap finds himself inside a line-drawing box, for example; he’s able to push open a door in one side, but that door smacks him in the rear on his way out.) Occasionally the screen is raised, giving us a peek at the goings-on behind the scenes, and at the dancers’ real bodies. Sometimes dancers move in front of the screen, but continue to interact with, or echo, the shadows behind it.

My colleague remarked that this silhouetted format added magic and mystery to Pilobolus’ signature gymnastics, which can sometimes seem like tricks for tricks’ sake. In Hapless,  the environment itself is the trick, which frees the dancers to tell the story. And they do, in wonderful, weird, giggle-inducing ways. More, please!

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