Review: Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Dance Company's 'Oyster'

By Nancy G. Heller

It’s 60 minutes of sheer delight — jam-packed with slapstick humor, astonishing acrobatic feats, witty visual effects, romance, heartbreak, and music ranging from jazz to Tuvan throat singing. Oyster, inspired by a book of poems by filmmaker Tim Burton, is a signature work of Israel’s award-winning Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Dance Company. The troupe’s three-day run at the Annenberg Center, which began Thursday, marks the end of its latest U.S. tour.

While each of the vignettes that make up Oyster evokes its own mood, the overall sense of eeriness and androgyny — and especially the dancers’ stark white makeup, fright wigs, and outrageous costumes — are certainly Burtonesque. (Think: Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands, Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice, Helena Bonham Carter in practically anything.) But Oyster also owes a lot to the circus, Federico Fellini, and the cracked sensibility of Edward Gorey.

There’s no linear, identifiable “plot” here, but there are distinctive recurring characters, notably a woman in a bright orange wig, dark tutu, pointe shoes, and a black turtleneck that obscures the lower half of her face. We don’t know who she is or why she has a tiny step stool attached to her rear end. But, because of the performers’ skill and the endless inventiveness of co-artistic directors Pinto, a dancer, and Pollak, a classically trained actor, who create the choreography and design soundscapes, sets, and costumes for all their works, we do wonder about this. We also care about Oyster’s other creatures as they crawl, stagger, shimmy, scuttle, strut, and fly about the stage.

But Oyster isn’t simply a parade of “acts.” There’s regular dancing, too, including a quirky and demanding sequence, performed by six people in tattered black frock coats, that would fit right into the repertoire of any contemporary company. The 12-member cast (which seems much larger) has the astounding physical control, and the comedic chops, to pull it all off.

Much of this piece’s power comes from its wild, complex, and fast-paced sequences. But one of the most affecting moments occurs at the very end, when two women slowly walk upstage, accompanied by sweet, slightly melancholy violin-and-piano music, and appear to dissolve into the back wall of the theater. It is a moment of genuine pathos and unexpected beauty.

Additional performances: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 3680 Walnut St. Tickets: $20-$50. Information: 215-898-3900 or