If you’ve ever seen a talent show before, you know the deal. They’re flashy, short performances that get across impressive qualities to the audience—be that someone’s neighbors or a huge crowd and TV audience. Catapult is an ensemble of dancers that got their start on one of the most famous (or infamous) talent shows of them all: America’s Got Talent. They get their reputation from their quirky, creative choreography done behind a screen, such that the audience can only see their silhouettes in shadow. It’s not something done by many. But with such a niche performance, what happens when they break free of the glossy sheen of television?
I went to see Catapult at Edmonds Center for the Arts, once a high school in a smaller area called Edmonds just outside of Seattle. The theater was smaller and the audience was older than their call to fame in Radio City Music Hall. It’s a step down, by most standards, but it meant fewer distractions from the performance itself—something I, as a dancer, was very interested to see.
The problem with switching from rapid-fire stints on a talent show to an hour-long performance is that you have to learn to keep the audience’s attention. Catapult managed this with a series of short pieces, some longer than others, with apt titles giving viewers cues as to what the next theme of the show would be. One of my favorites was SPY: a lighthearted super-spy piece in which an unassuming housewife goes out on grand, death-defying adventures before returning home to make dinner. The soundtrack would turn from calm to tense as her enemies first appeared, portrayed once again in shadow by the performers. This use of simple props, other dancers, and music cues to tell a rather complex story through shadow showed the thought given to choreography.
But what got Catapult famous in the first place was their art form: shadow dancing, something surprising and new to many due to its rarity. It depends on a different sort of technique than most modern dance. Yes, the performers were talented, but the applause came when they gave the illusion of being frogs by crouching down and putting their hands on top of their heads. There were liminal moments throughout, bordering between a person and the shape that they convey, a split-second question of “what are they doing now?”. Shadow properties were also utilized by bringing a given dancer closer to the screen or farther away, making them look smaller or larger to the audience.
I had mixed feelings about this change of pace. The technical aspects were fascinating, really, especially as someone who doesn’t know anything about how they do it, but I can’t help but wish they showcased the dancers more. It seemed an unfortunate byproduct of Catapult’s near-gimmicky origin that the dancers had no chance to be creative or expressive individually.
Another issue that must be mentioned is the inaccuracies that occurred in one of the pieces, centered on a girl that traveled the world—what places she traveled to, I couldn’t tell you. The portrayals were so vague that I couldn’t often tell what area or culture they meant to show. I understand that Catapult wished to tell a fun, exciting story with little weight behind it, but it would have loved to see more accuracy and research gone into showcasing other cultures. Unfortunately, this did not happen.
In all, Catapult was a very fun group to see. America’s Got Talent was a staple show in my household growing up, and I actually have vague memories of watching them, in awe for those short few minutes. They have an entertaining, nuanced art form, and they did well at adapting to a very different runtime and format at Edmonds Center for the Arts. But it is difficult for a group made famous by surprising their audience to thrive on a smaller stage. Where they go next may improve upon their issues and stretch their boundaries, but for now, enjoy the shadow people who turn into spies and frogs.
Catapult performed at Edmonds Center for the Arts on October 23, 2021. For more information see here.
Lead photo credit: Photo by Peter Dervin
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