Once upon a time, there was a dancer named Inbal Pinto. She lived in Israel, where she met Avshalom Pollack, a drama student. Together they did what they liked, combining their skills and their far-out dreams, fulfilling a wish to tell stories in different ways. The story they're bringing to Spoleto is called Oyster, simply because it sounds right. It's very skillful and completely different from any other show in the festival. This makes them happy.
Despite publicity to the contrary, Oyster has almost nothing to do with Tim Burton's poem "The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy." In a phone call from Tel Aviv, Pollack told us that he and Pinto had already originated the show when they came across Burton's book in a London store. The word "oyster" jumped out and it really seemed to fit as a title. "It joined together mysteriously and continuously," he explains, bemused by the references to Burton that seem to pop up in all of their PR. "It's okay I guess, we like him. Our production can remind you of his worlds, with the visual kind of stuff and the costumes. But it's different."
This show shifts and changes too much to be defined by one short poem. Nevertheless the parallels are clear. As in Burton movies like Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Edward Scissorhands, Oyster is about being different or flawed and trying to be perfect, having disabilities or restrictions but still trying to achieve great things. It has a dark, absurd style, outrageous set pieces, and costumes and makeup that project childlike innocence twisted out of shape. "If it reminds people [of those films] or they can see the story, that's fine," says Pollack. "But we have no master plan or specific plot that the audience will get."
As far as he and Pinto are concerned, the more ambiguous their show is, the better. That includes the medium of expression as well as the story threads they're weaving. Is it dance? Quirky contemporary movement? There's a fine tightrope between universal appeal and ambiguity; Pollack and Pinto seem to be treading it very successfully.
"It's a show that isn't really difficult to connect with," says Pollack. "It addresses a very wide variety of audiences — ones that know dance, theater, the circus — making the right connections between different kinds of people. Some people can find their whole lives in our pieces."
When they created Oyster, Pinto and Pollack knew they wanted to incorporate a carnival sideshow element. So they watched Tod Browning's 1932 movie Freaks together, just to help them understand the subject. "I don't think it was a specific inspiration," says Pollack. "Watching the movie was part of the process. The sideshow ideas came from our internal world. I grew up in a family of actors; we both grew up backstage."
They must have seen some mighty weird stuff, because Oyster's full of it: male dancers with no arms, living dolls, froglike ballerinas on leashes, a giant, and a human bell. According to Pollack, the sequence "explores how human beings, performers, are manipulated into doing things." There's intrinsic meaning behind the action, even if the plot is fathomless. "The elements are linked together," says the director. "We have internal logic, a world we create on stage."
Like dream logic?
"It is like dream logic almost," Pollack agrees. "The great power of performing arts is that they're like dreaming. They're about going into the unknown, watching something that can be strong, surreal, nostalgic, a fantastic experience and an emotional one — it's to dream while awake."
That seems to be a big reason why Pinto and Pollack's work has been popular for more than two decades. Their work is visually stunning escapism that isn't difficult to connect with on an emotional level. "It's not fast food for the brain," Pollack insists. "There's more in it, more layers. It's like an onion that you can peel and get more information or metaphors or some kind of magic." Another reason for their success could be their strange but catchy titles, which include "Shaker" and "Boobies."
Israeli contemporary arts are enjoying a current resurgence in popularity, a young form in a young country with audiences that continue to grow. That has given Pinto and Pollack more artistic freedom. "We're not really depending on [box office] or afraid to find the way to bring an audience," Pollack says. "That enables us to bring new ideas. When an artist says 'I need to bring this amount of audience,' it turns into a different show. We concentrate on making our shows the best we can, not what works with an audience."
However, the artists don't ignore the concerns of the audiences, their tastes and their political proclivities. "We do what we do," Pollack says. Not that we avoid politics — we examine the reasons for our lives, our hopes and despairs, maybe create our own politics."
Ten years ago the performers toured China. In a Q&A, they heard audience members say they felt the show reflected their lives and the way the government controlled their existence. Pollack is careful not to make direct political comments in his work. "We put it inside and cover it with layers and layers of stuff," he says. "They're part of the material but not in your face — part of the action of a character, in a set, inside the music, sinking into your ears and heart, inviting you or shaking you into doing something, speaking to you."
The messages are there for those who look, encapsulated in a tantalizing treatise on the value of freedom. The creators of Oyster are happy living their own fractured fairy tale, bringing their dreams and nightmares to life in Israeli, American, and European theaters. Not everyone will dream on the same wavelength as them, but audiences will be emotionally involved, even if their feelings are of disdain rather than joy. And behind the surprising images lie comments on social politics, artistic freedom, and the power of magic. Dream along with them and you might catch a few pearls of wisdom along the way.