There's a lot of hype surrounding Oyster, the offbeat creation of Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak Dance Company of Israel. Described as part-Carnival, part-dance, and part-theater, this critic sat down expecting something akin to Cirque de Soleil, but this was unrealistic given the parameters of the Memminger stage and the fact that, well, it’s a dance company and not a circus. Basic gymnastics are incorporated, back bends and back-walkovers, but there is not much “cirque” in the alternate world Pinto and Pollack have created. This show’s intention is not to wow you with athleticism or dance, but to coax you into a distorted universe that is part magic, part movie. Like watching Frankenstein as an old silent film ... in slow motion.
In a recent interview, Pollak insisted that, contrary to popular belief, Oyster was not modeled after or inspired by Tim Burton’s poem “The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy,” but anyone familiar with Burton’s classic Edward Scissorhands will note a striking resemblance in tone and oddity right off the bat. Pinto and Pollack took great measures to separate their dancers from their human identities. They all wear wacky blond wigs that seem as though they’ve been permanently (and purposefully) tousled with pomade, and each character’s face is transformed, Geisha-style, with white paint and red cheeks and lips. Most characters are androgynous, and I am still unsure of the sex of the ballerina who opens the show.
The lights come up ona man (we think) in a red tutu holding a flexed leg extension by his head awkwardly. There is nothing graceful about this flexibility (though that does not mean it is not impressive), and as the character hops downstage, switches leg holds, and hops back up, his mannerisms are strangely like those of a pigeon. The sound of wind howling as if outside a window is the only other noise. The Memminger stage has a cutout entrance, about half the size of the actual backdrop, rimmed with large party lights, and it serves to add depth to the stage and as an unusual means for dancers to enter and exit.
Next enters the four (or three, depending on your perspective) characters that serve as the only consistent storyline throughout the show. There is a two-tiered man (read: two men) cloaked in one oversize trench coat. These vertical Siamese twins stand on one rolling platform with a higher platform attached. The men’s heads are lined up so one is practically directly above the other. It serves for some quirky illusions and funny vignettes and all their facial expressions, sounds, and pantomiming are over the top. A woman (the only red-head of the production) wears a turtleneck that covers the lower half of her face for the entire duration of the hour-long performance. Oddly enough she has a tiny stool attached to her rear. Last is the haggard-looking hunchback who we’ll call the “Groundskeeper” for convenience sake (and because that’s what I kept thinking). He streams in and out of almost every act, sometimes as a functional character/”techie” setting the stage for the next dancer, and other times as a motionless, expressionless Addams Family butler. Speaking of which, if the Addams Family had a TV show, and in one episode they went to the fair, this would be it. There’s no circus music per se, but the phrase “creepy carnival” comes to mind.
Some of the most interesting vignettes in Oyster are truly imaginative: the Groundskeeper enters through a tiny flap in the backdrop (like the swinging flap “doors” owners make for their pets to enter and exit the house as they please). He holds two ballerinas on a leash who squirm and dance about the stage — it is one of the more acrobatic sequences. They are at times like pet frogs and at others like monkeys picking through each other’s hair. In another vignette a girl wearing a mini hoop skirt hangs like a puppet from a cable manually operated by the Groundskeeper. This is one of the most interesting explorations of movement, easily overlooked. She does an excellent job of subtly holding her body as though it has no will of its own. One really gets the sense that she is light and graceful, but only capable of standing when the cable that holds her is held taut by the expressionless hunchback. It must have been a meticulous examination of the body’s behavior as a sole entity in various settings of weight, space, and gravity. This scene is also delightful because it is one of the few where there is an interaction between puppet girl and the man beside her. There is a group of about six androgynous men that wear ratty-looking tuxedos. They all wear soft black jazz shoes, are in and out of most scenes, and are characterized by their masterful Gumby movements (as masterful as Gumby can be). They wiggle like they have no control over their bodies and joints. But they rarely make a connection (at least a human one) with each other, it is more an issue of reacting to each other. In this scene however, the two flirt as best as a puppet girl and Gumby boy can. But every time they attempt an embrace, her dead weight seems to push him over gently. There are many comedic moments, and it ends with the sound of a church bell tolling in synch with the up and down bell-like movements of a second puppet girl.
There are so many more small touches of magic throughout that leave the viewer in awe of the imagination of these two choreographers: the troupe of Gumby men have a random choreographed number where they appear to have no arms. It is random because it is one of only two times there is upbeat Israeli music that blares and they dance in unison. None of the choreography is too technically challenging, but the men have beautiful lines at times — or, as beautiful as you can get when dancing without arms. As always in this production, the intention seems to be more on the exploration of body illusions in space and movements made if someone else was in control (again with the puppet theme), and less on dance per se. There is also a noteworthy number where a ribbon is tied from each dancer’s middle finger to big toe. The ribbons look like ski poles, then exercise bands, until they let them fall to the floor in a fluttering heap. It is an understated piece where one must appreciate not only the fun of an unexpected prop, but also the difficulty of holding something as lifeless as a ribbon taut between one’s toe and finger for the entire duration of a dance number.
The Charleston audience was enthralled with this show. The whole house stood up for ovations. My bottom line is this: If you were saving one ticket for dance and love this genre for all it is and can be, do not see this show. There is little to shock and awe those who seek to witness the technical capabilities of a dancer’s body. The movements seem a bit heavy and match the dour mood of the genius freak show carnival theme. I never saw any fire in the dancers, but then again, that is the point. The direction and vision of Pinto and Pollack is more than commendable, however. It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a spectacle of this magnitude in our small city, and I suspect fellow Charlestonians are acutely aware of this, and will love Oyster unconditionally. For those eager for a unique theatrical performance combining all the elements of the theater with movement, comedy, pantomime and magic, step right up for Oyster.