Strange stuff

A marionette pulls her own strings in 'Oyster,' a production of Spoleto Festival USA.

Feathers and freaks collide with fairy tale imagery to form Inbal Pinto's and Avshalom Pollack's fantastical creation "Oyster."

With vague yet evocative titles such as "Trout," "Hydra," and the intriguingly named "Boobies," their work blends Pinto's background in dance and Pollack's in theater to take their audiences to never-before-seen places.

"We like creating fantastic worlds and creatures," said Pollack, an actor who had never worked in dance before joining forces with Pinto in 1992. "Strange stuff."

Now the "strange stuff" in "Oyster" is coming to Spoleto Festival USA. The show has been touring the globe since premiering in France in 1999. Part dance, part theater, part acrobatics performance, the circus-themed work features an 11-person cast of clowns, contortionists, pale-faced dancing ghouls and performers on strings functioning as life-sized marionettes. The elaborate costumes and abrupt movements create a show that resembles less a classic dance piece than a children's fairy tale told at high speed with impressive, and sometimes frightening, results.

The Spoleto program guide describes "Oyster" as being "inspired by" the work of similarly strange filmmaker Tim Burton ("Edward Scissorhands," "Beetlejuice," "Alice in Wonderland"). The title was taken from Burton's collection of illustrated poems ("The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories"), Pollack said. He is quick to point out, though, that this piece is no adaptation. The Burton connection is just another example of his love of simple language.

"We liked the sounds of the word," explained Pollack. "Like the piece, there's so many ways to interpret it. But we just took the word."

But if "Oyster" isn't a Tim Burton poem come to life, where exactly did its garish, Burton-like imagery come from?

From whatever strands of expressionist-flavored inspiration hit its creators, Pollack said. He points to the 1932 film "Freaks" as an example. He was inspired not by its story of a band of cruelly abused circus performers, but by a single visual element: a hat with a feather that one of the "freaks" was wearing. He quickly found a place for this hat in "Oyster."

But the show isn't built entirely around feathered hats and suggestive titles. Some of "Oyster's" more thematic inspirations stem from its creator's lives. "One influence [was] memories that Inbal had of dance camp when she was a child," Pollack recalled. "The wish and will of the students to be perfect… What we create is putting not-so-perfect people trying to be perfect, and we kind of work with that contradiction on stage."

This quest for perfection is enacted by a cast with extraordinarily diverse backgrounds. Some performers come with classical ballet experience. Others have studied modern dance.

Zvika Fishzon is an actor who joined the company nearly ten years ago without any professional dance experience. Thanks to the troupe's unorthodox style, he was able to put his training in mime movement, clowning, and acrobatics to good use.

"What I saw in them was that (their work) was all part of a fantasy that I really liked," Fishzon recalled. "And because I come from a physical acting background, I fit in with them."

The similarly diverse music ranges from classical opera to the eerily metallic sounds of Tuvan throat-singing. When all these disparate elements come together it is still difficult to classify exactly what "Oyster" is. Those looking for a cohesive narrative thread may walk away disappointed. Pollack himself is much more concerned with the show's psychological effect on an audience than with their literal interpretation, he said.

"We look at our pieces as machines that trigger emotion," he said. "They connect to other people without a spoken language but with an emotional language, a visual language. The great thing about doing this and it working is that there's this very magical kind of link we create. Something happens to the audience."

Jason Berger is a Goldring Arts Journalism Program writer. Reach him at jberge03@syr.edu.