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Inbal Pinto - 'Oyster'

by Mary Ellen Hunt

May 7, 2006 -- San Francisco Performances, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

That sense of unease began with the sound of the wind, blowing across a vast, deserted space.  As the twilight glow came up on Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak’s “Oyster,” a little shiver went down my spine.

Outside of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, crowds of people were lolling in the green lawn, enjoying the warm sunny afternoon, but the less fortunate they, because those of us who had wandered into Pinto’s dark cavern of circus freaks were in for a wild ride.

Pinto, who is a former member of Israel’s acclaimed Batsheva Dance Company, incorporates many familiar theatrical touches into her sideshow – the white-face makeup, zany costumes, a bare stage framed by naked light bulbs that suggest a dilapidated carnival – but the pleasure of “Oyster” is not that it breaks new ground, but in how expertly she and collaborator Pollak have put the elements together. 

We’ve seen duets with aerial work before, but rarely done with such ease and insouciance.  Dancers have been strung and manipulated like puppets before, but rarely with such creepy implications.  But “Oyster’s” cavalcade of sideshow freaks displays a canny understanding of the real art of pantomime, and though it has been categorized by presenter San Francisco Performances as “dance,” it’s really a skillful theater piece.

The twelve members of the troupe take on personas that defy adequate description, ranging from circus animals – performing dogs, elephants, etc. – to a double headed barker, whom I found to be as disturbing as “Laughing Sal,” the coin-operated doll that used to stand in San Francisco’s Musee Mecanique. The music runs from Astor Piazzolla to Yma Sumac, from old standards to throaty humming, many of which never before seemed so sinister or unfamiliar.

Faded carnies every one, the characters run through their paces, and at the end of the day, doff their accoutrements and sit down to amuse each other.  The weary atmosphere has a tincture of forlorn sadness about it – though not of the self-pitying variety, but rather the kind that made characters like Emmett Kelly’s Weary Willie or Chaplin’s Little Tramp so compelling.  Why do we watch them?  Why do we watch sideshows? Is it that they evoke macabre fascination or empathy? And, Pinto seems to ask, what does that say about us?

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