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Inbal Pinto’s peripatetic ‘Oyster’ is opening here at last

EYAL LANDESMAN

“Oyster’’ is Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak Dance Company’s signature work.

A ballerina in a black tutu and whiteface, with an orange fright wig and a folding stool attached to her backside. A 60-something actress in a clown ruff leading two women who hop about on leashes. Two men imprisoned inside the same giant coat and wheeled about on a wagon. Men in tails and tattered collars; women dancing with what look like red ski poles attached from their fingers to their toes. A woman in a hoop skirt swinging from a harness, resembling a bell clapper as she endeavors to perform a pas de deux with her partner on the ground below. Oh, and an organ grinder.

If you read that all of that is coming to the Paramount Center this weekend, you might well suppose it’s part of a Federico Fellini film retrospective. Or perhaps a screening of Tod Browning’s 1932 horror movie about sideshow performers, “Freaks.’’ Actually, it’s a live piece, “Oyster,’’ from the Tel Aviv-based Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak Dance Company. “Oyster’’ was conceived in 1999; it was presented at Jacob’s Pillow in 2001, and at the Joyce Theater in New York in 2003, and it’s delighted audiences from Dublin to Shanghai. It even played New Haven in 2002. Now, finally, the Celebrity Series is bringing it to Boston.

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Why did “Oyster’’ take so long to arrive? Speaking from Cleveland, the first stop on the company’s current American tour, Pollak confirms that this is their first visit to Boston. He says he has no idea why they haven’t been here before: “It’s a mystery.’’

Celebrity Series president and executive director Gary Dunning explains that it’s actually taken this long to make the scheduling work. “She’s in demand,’’ he says of Pinto. “She is definitely one of the more interesting female choreographers working today, and I would say that after the untimely death of Pina Bausch, she’s right up there in terms of worldwide interest and demand, both for her company and for working with others.’’

Pinto and Pollak did collaborate with Pilobolus on a 2007 piece, “Rushes,’’ that Pilobolus danced in a Celebrity Series appearance in December 2010. “So her work has been seen here,’’ Dunning notes. “But ‘Oyster’ was the one we were very interested in because it’s her signature work.’’

“Inbal and I started to create together in 1992,’’ remembers Pollak, Pinto’s longtime partner onstage and off. They were both born in Israel, Pinto in 1969, Pollak in 1970. She started her dance training at 13 and went on to Batsheva Dance Company. In 1990, she embarked on a choreographing career; in 2000, she won a Bessie Award for “Wrapped.’’ Pollak is the son of Israeli actor Yossi Pollak; he trained as an actor, and his credits included Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet’’ and Tuzenbach in Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.’’

But then, he says, “I was drawn into Inbal’s world of contemporary dance. We speak the same language, in a way. When we have a sketchbook that we draw our ideas into, and when we create storyboards, characters, sets, and costumes, Inbal can start a painting and I can finish it. Or I can do something and she can color it. So this is how we work. Not only in the sketchbook, but onstage, in rehearsal.’’

It’s been said that “Oyster’’ owes its title to Tim Burton’s 1997 book “The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy.’’ “Well, yes,’’ Pollak concedes, “but not for the book, just for the sound and the shape of the word.’’ And he allows that the idea of the pearl, of inner beauty, is there, but he cautions that the title “can go in several directions; that’s just one of them. There isn’t necessarily one way to think about the name or think about the show. It can be something that even we don’t really know or ever thought of.’’

Pollak also says that they weren’t necessarily thinking of Fellini when they conceived “Oyster.’’ And he says that “the circus element was something more like a traveling circus or a traveling theater, like a family theater that travels from place to place and finds itself in a desert-like area, or something like that. Which happens.’’

“We were dealing with different kinds of forces,’’ he continues, “with people being controlled by forces that we see or don’t see, different kinds of strings, gravity, the ambition to be perfect, as a performer, and as a person. It’s the marionette world, and the puppet world, and thinking about us as creatures who are being controlled by different kinds of forces, seen or not, inside society, or family, or something else. Someone is being manipulated.’’

The show’s costumes, Pollak says, “are likewise an influence on the process and vice versa. It can be the kind of element that’s an obstacle, or makes the dancer move in a certain way. That was also something we dealt with in rehearsals, and in fact the show eventually had dancers dancing [seemingly] without arms, and had dancers have these strings attached to their toes and their fingers. Using different materials that made them move in a different way.’’

Add to that a truly eclectic score - everything from “Pagliacci’’ and Ástor Piazzolla to Harry James, Yma Sumac, and Tuvan throat singing - and you have . . . something like Bausch’s “tanztheater’’? Dunning agrees that “the overall conceptual and theatrical approach resonates with the stuff we’ve all seen from Pina over the years.’’ But he stresses that Pinto has her own style of physical movement - “one you don’t see a lot of American modern choreographers working with’’ - and dance theater. “There’s such a big visual component, whether it’s costumes or lighting or sets, that really gets integrated in her perception of the piece,’’ he adds. “She’s a rising force on the international dance scene, and someone to follow. This is a great and unfortunately rare opportunity to see her work.’’

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.
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