Sunday, January 29th, 2012 10:00 AM
A world of dizzying images fills "Oyster," the work with which Israel's Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak Dance Company made a winning Cleveland debut Saturday at the Ohio Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.
We appear to be at some sort of circus (or asylum), with the cast in whiteface and crazy wigs, as if they're clowns on the loose. What unfolds is a smorgasbord of funny, endearing and grotesque vignettes, a mixture of more › commedia dell'arte, Fellini and Barnum & Bailey.
In "Oyster," the most frequently performed work in their company's repertoire, Pinto and Pollak use dance and theatricaI elements with inventive expertise. Many relationships are suggested in the interactions of the 12 tireless performers who keep the narrative on its topsy-turvy, and occasionally poignant, course.
A two-headed man in an enormous coat dominates much of the activity as the inhabitants grimace with Chaplin-esque whimsy or engage in child-like playfulness with a dour clown and a ballerina whose bottom is bedecked with a little chair.
Many of the characters in "Oyster" spend more than little time tethered or otherwise. The most captivating moment finds Noga Harmelin, a dancer of remarkable grace and dexterity, floating in the air thanks to a harness and a colleague who sends her aloft as if ringing a church bell. At one point, she inches her way on pointe along the arm of another dancer.
The dour clown, played with a marvelous poker face by Rina Rosenbaum, walks two ballerinas around with red ribbons, as if they're promenading poodles. The clown soon cuts their ribbons, leaving them free to go their way.
Details both fanciful and dark pervade "Oyster." The two ballerinas bend down and perform a pas de deux bearing only their bottoms. In one scene behind a false proscenium, the two-headed man, dour clown and chair-bedecked ballerina enact a tale of violence and love to the Intermezzo from Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci."
The impeccable use of music extends to the work's other sections. A trio that becomes a quintet of bobbing clowns dances to a bit of Harry James. Another quintet of wigged-out circus denizens shimmy and shake to the strange, stratospheric vocals of Yma Sumac. One hot number, set to "Jalousie" played by Werner Muller and his Orchestra, features a couple dancing what amounts to a tango interruptus.
"Oyster" is such an intoxicating blend of movement, costumes (by Pinto and Pollak) and lighting (by Yoann Tivoli) that it's almost a let-down when the two untethered ballerinas amble tenderly upstage as the curtain falls only an hour after the work has begun.
But what could serve as an apt appetizer or dessert on a program with "Oyster"? As catapulted with exceptional energy, sophistication and personality by the Israeli company, the piece is a hearty theatrical dish that stands – and often performs pratfalls – on its own.
RELATED COMPANY: Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak Dance Company (Israel)
Thursday, January 26th, 2012 12:00 PM
In the dazzling circus world of "Oyster," Noga Harmelin dances the role of a tiny, acrobatic doll. With her delicate face painted white beneath a wig of unruly blond hair, she is a whimsical and tragic clown. She jumps, she gesticulates and she even floats (with the help of a harness) high into the air, tiptoeing her feet along the outstretched arm of her dance partner below. Harmelin dances while more ›
being pulled by marionette strings, forced to succumb to the characters and forces around her.
In the real world, the petite Harmelin is a veteran performer who pulls her own strings. For 10 years she has danced this role, and many others, with the Tel Aviv-based Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Dance Company. While Pinto and Pollak have worked together since 1992, producing a diverse repertory, "Oyster" is their most famous creation. Currently celebrating more than 400 performances, the piece, which last came to America in 2010, returns in January, for a tour starting in Cleveland and visiting New Brunswick, N.J.; Boston, and Philadelphia.
"When I saw 'Oyster' for the first time, I knew I wanted to be a part of the company," Harmelin said in a recent interview with the Forward. "Now, after a decade, I am still mesmerized by its enchanting characters."
Premiering in 1999 as part of a commission from the Maison de la Danse in Lyon, France, "Oyster" was the first large-scale collaboration between Pinto and Pollak.
Immersed in the arts from a young age, the co-directors are both seasoned performers. Pinto studied at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and danced with Batsheva Dance Company, and in 1990 started doing her own choreography. Pollak, son of well-known Israeli actor Yossi Pollak, was classically trained in theater.
"We had worked together earlier, but this was our first big international project," Pollak told the Forward in a recent phone interview. "'Oyster' combined our artistic sensibilities in a whole new way."
Moving through various connected scenes, the characters perform in different costumes throughout the piece. The show's imagery is humorous, clever and grotesque: The characters are a striking group of misfits. Wearing wild wigs, baggy suits and sparkling tutus, the eight dancers and four actors resemble a surrealistic sideshow.
In a bright-orange wig, Michal Almogi plays a tall ballerina clown who gallivants around the stage with a black turtleneck pulled up over her mouth. Zvi Fishzon and Rina Rosenbaum portray two older scheming clowns who emerge from the red curtains of a small proscenium built onto the stage. The spritely Harmelin is one of eight dancing dolls that bend and bounce like wind-up toys. The skilled dancers cleanly articulate the choreography, which combines elements from classical ballet, mime and gymnastics. The hour-long piece is composed of vignettes set to Pollak's own arrangement of recorded tango, opera and swing music.
Dance critics have noted various allusions to filmmakers Federico Fellini and Tim Burton, but Pinto and Pollak are hesitant to ascribe an overt influence or narrative to "Oyster." "We liked the name of the Tim Burton book ["The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy"], and that helped with the title," Pollak said. "But the ideas are from many sources - images from European street theater, puppetry and scenes from our own childhood dreams."
Pinto and Pollak fuse their stage design, costuming and choreography to create a unique performance experience. "Oyster" has engrossed audiences worldwide, compelling them to attend repeat performances. "Even looking at your favorite painting a hundred times, you may see something that you never saw before," Harmelin said. "'Oyster' has so much to explore. The piece is a playground, and even after so many shows, there are new games to play."
"We have taken 'Oyster' to four continents and have connected with so many diverse audiences," Pollak said. "'Oyster' has a language all its own. It communicates with the imagination."
Stacey Menchel Kussell is a culture writer. Her recent articles examine Israeli contemporary dance.
The "Oyster" tour begins at Cleveland's Ohio Theatre with performances on January 28 and 29. Other tour stops include New Jersey's State Theatre Regional Arts Center in New Brunswick on February 1; Boston's Paramount Theater on February 4 and 5, and Philadelphia's Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts from February 9 to 11.
Stacey Menchel Kussell
RELATED COMPANY: Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak Dance Company (Israel)
Wednesday, January 25th, 2012 12:00 PM
Avshalom Pollak says it's difficult to define dance, in particular the off-kilter work Oyster, a signature work of the Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Dance Company.
Oyster, created in 1999 by professional and life partners Pinto and Pollak, creates a surreal circus world populated by oddly beautiful creatures. The Israeli troupe will make its Ohio debut Saturday and Sunday with its evening-length work, to be performed at the Ohio Theatre.
Over the more › years, comparisons have been made between the dreamlike Oyster and the work of Cirque du Soleil, Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini and German choreographer Pina Bausch. Pollak appreciates those analogies but at the same time eschews them.
"I don't think we really should define it as something. It is what it is," he said.
Pinto and Pollak, both artistic directors, choreographers and directors for the company, have blended their work for more than 20 years. She is a former dancer for Israel's Batsheva Company who began choreographing in 1990 and he, the son of Israeli actor Yossi Pollak, was trained as a classical actor.
Pollak, who grew up on the stage, said he has now spent more of his professional life in the dance world than the theater world.
"I've been drawn into this fantastic world of contemporary dance," said Pollak. One of the beauties of dance is that it often doesn't have to be explained, yet it makes sense, he said. One of the first dances Pollak and Pinto created was a trio they performed with his father.
Oyster combines modern dance, mime, ballet, gymnastics, vaudeville, clowning and commedia dell'arte. Its creators began with inspiration in the world of puppetry - the idea of being controlled by an outside force and being tamed, either psychologically or physically.
Freakish ballerinas with white makeup and wild blond wigs hop on leashes, led by a clownish-looking female actress. In another twist on the perfect ballerina norm, two others dance with their fingers connected to their toes by strings. Two men are controlled by a giant overcoat - imprisoned together in the same outerwear.
Oyster, Pollak said, explores imperfection and "how disabilities become something super special or unique, in a way." Ten dancers and actors, ages 20 to 75, perform in the work.
The Pinto/Pollak company has tour dates booked through mid-2013, including Norway, South America and Spain. Pinto and Pollak are immersed in a variety of projects, including an opera production their dancers will perform next winter in Norway and another big project in the works in Japan. The duo creates one new work each year for the company.
Pollak said Oyster has evolved since its world premiere 13 years ago in Lyon, France.
"Of course it should be changing and evolving and refining. I think the heart of it stays. It has a very good and honest heart," he said in a Skype interview from his home in Tel Aviv. "Different dancers and actors add something new to the piece and I think it's improving over the years. It has so many things inside of it - so many details - it's really hard to get everything the first time."
He said Oyster offers an escapist experience for those who open themselves up to it. He prefers that audience members come without preconceptions so they can be surprised and energized, and feel unadulterated emotions.
"We definitely prefer that people will come blank," he said. "It's something that makes you more full."
Cleveland is the first U.S. stop for the company, followed by Boston; New Brunswick, N.J.; and Philadelphia. Performances will be at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Cost is $25 to $55. Call 216-241-6000 or see www.playhousesquare.org.
Yefim Bronfman returns
Pianist Yefim Bronfman had to cancel his last scheduled performance with the Cleveland Orchestra at E.J. Thomas Hall due to illness in 2009. But he'll be back at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday with the orchestra as part of the Tuesday Musical Association series.
He will play one of his favorite piano concerti, Brahms' Second. Bronfman, known as one of the most talented piano virtuosos performing today, last appeared through Tuesday Musical as part of a trio with violinist Gil Shaham and cellist Lynn Harrell in 2006. Tuesday Musical also has presented him in solo recital.
Bronfman, an Israeli-American who's a native of Uzbek in the former Soviet Union, is in residency this month with the Cleveland Orchestra in Miami, Cleveland, Akron and New York, focusing on the concerti and chamber music of Brahms. Also coming up is a winter performance at Carnegie Hall and the world premiere of Magnus Lindberg's concerto, commissioned for him by the New York Philharmonic.
In Akron, the Cleveland Orchestra also will perform Shepherd's Wanderlust and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6. Tickets cost $22-$40. Students may receive free vouchers. Call 330-972-7570 or 800-745-3000.
Bronfman will perform an all-Brahms chamber music concert at 2 p.m. Feb. 5 at Severance Hall's Reinberger Chamber Hall. The program will include the Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor; Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, performed with Cleveland Orchestra Concertmaster William Preucil; and Piano Quintet in F minor for Piano and Strings, with Bronfman joined by Preucil, principal second violin Stephen Rose, principal viola Robert Vernon and principal cello Mark Kosower. Cost is $36.
Finally, Bronfman will perform Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Cleveland Orchestra Feb. 2-4. See www.clevelandorchestra.com or call 216-231-1111.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sunday, January 22nd, 2012 6:00 AM
Creative artists and performers tend to avoid -- not to mention dislike -- describing their styles. They're usually too immersed in the process of devising or interpreting works to take time to ponder what makes them tick.
So it's no surprise that Israeli actor and choreographer Avshalom Pollak is hesitant to characterize the artistry he and his wife, Inbal Pinto, have been nurturing for two decades.
"It is what it is," Pollak more › said by phone recently from Tel Aviv, where the Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak Dance Company is based. "We blend in our creations the things that we collect through our lives."
The collection the troupe will bring to the Ohio Theatre this week for its Cleveland debut is a concoction titled "Oyster," the most popular piece in the Pinto-Pollak repertory. The full-length work has received more than 300 performances worldwide since its premiere in 1999 in Lyon, France.
"Oyster" is a torrent of dance, theater and music, reflecting the varied artistic paths that coincide in Pinto and Pollak's creations. Pinto performed with Batsheva Dance Company, Israel's most acclaimed contemporary ensemble, before striking out on her own as a choreographer. Pollak was an actor before linking up with Pinto -- they're long married -- and veering into new artistic territory.
"I was in drama school and did a project as a director and playwright," said Pollak. "I wanted to do a collaboration with a choreographer, and this is how we met.
"We didn't start working together, but we were seeing each other. It was something really magical. Our world really kind of blended beyond our personal life. Everything became one, artistically and family-wise. I became a choreographer, and she became a director."
The word "magical" also could be applied to works Pinto and Pollak have shaped for their company. Contemporary dance melding with acrobatics, ballet, mime and a smorgasbord of music conjures fantastical images. Some are narrative-driven, others abstract.
The wild and whimsical images and puppetlike characters in "Oyster" stem from many sources, including Fellini. But they're mostly figments of the imaginations of Pinto and Pollak, who never know what they're going to produce when they begin creating a piece.
"It's not something we set up," said Pollak. "In all of our pieces, there's a very defined signature, though we are trying to escape it every time there's something new.
"We want to make the audience feel, think, dream, reflect and be part of something that is disappearing. I think people are more and more disconnected from many things -- emotions and the past. Everything becomes very isolated."
Pollak and Pinto aren't isolated from their country, but they've also never consciously incorporated Israeli elements in their works. Instead, they aim, Pollak said, "to collect more and more things that we make something out of -- create worlds and invent new languages and new ways to communicate through our art."
And their creations are never finished. Although "Oyster" has been in circulation for more than 12 years, Pinto and Pollak continue to hone it. The work's title, chosen after the piece was completed, comes from Tim Burton's macabre book "The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories," but the dance goes its own metaphoric ways.
"We deal in the piece with performers and human beings who want to achieve some high goal and be perfect or get some kind of catharsis," said Pollak. "Oyster can be the theater we open up -- this magical place that sometimes is perfect, sometimes is not. The connotation is that nothing really fits."
Pinto and Pollak's company evidently functions well. What began as a tiny troupe that presented small pieces has become an organization with 10 dancers and guest actors who perform full-length works conceived, choreographed and designed by the co-directors, who are busy offstage with two young sons. (And the reason Pinto couldn't join Pollak for this phone conversation.)
The dancers are employed 11 months a year. The company, whose annual operating budget hovers around $1 million, receives funding from Israel's culture ministry and the city of Tel Aviv. Much of its earned revenue comes from touring and projects outside Israel.
Along with this month's U.S. tour, the company is scheduled to perform soon in Norway, South America, Europe and Japan.
Dance in Israel, according to Pollak, is flourishing, from ballet and contemporary to folkloric.
"Contemporary dance is very active here in Israel," he said, "I guess because of the variety of people and nations and this fusion. It creates a lot of tension. Maybe that's good for the arts."
Wednesday, January 18th, 2012 4:30 PM
Audiences attending Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Company's "Oyster" are apt to discover many hidden pearls in the quirky dance and theatrical work that includes mime, ballet, gymnastics, acrobatics and modern dance.
The 20-year-old Israeli-based dance troupe consisting of 12 dancers/actors will make its Ohio première at PlayhouseSquare's Ohio Theatre when it performs "Oyster" Sat.-Sun., Jan. 28-29, presented by DANCECleveland with support from the Jewish Federation's Cleveland Israel Arts Connection.
"Oyster," choreographed more › by Pinto with the help of her life partner and director/choreographer/artistic director Avshalom Pollak, had its world première in Lyon, France, in 1999 and has been performed internationally ever since.
The circus-world, mystical nature of the show includes wandering street acrobats wearing doll-like makeup, spiky blond wigs and tutus; they alternately become puppets or puppeteers. The eclectic score spans from opera and tango to Tuvan (southern Siberian) throat singers and Big Band jazz. Its quirkiness prompted Village Voice to describe "Oyster" as "part vaudeville and part toy store after midnight."
"It was a natural evolution for our dance company to have such an unusual array of imaginative artistic styles and moods incorporated into this performance," said Pollak from his home in Tel Aviv. "The dance community in Israel is very fruitful and receptive to new art forms. The contemporary choreography and costuming in 'Oyster' is reflective of the strange combinations of people and customs that comprise Israel."
The title of the performance comes from the book of poems and sketches The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories, written by filmmaker Tim Burton ("Edward Scissorhands").
Pollak hopes that people will attend the unusual performance with an open mind. "'Oyster' often triggers varied audience responses," he said. "Its connection to life will vary from person-to-person in a very magical way. It is like dreaming without sleeping."
Dance and art have been a central theme of Pinto and Pollak's life since they met in grammar school in 1993. Pinto began her formal dance training when she was 13, was a member of Israel's Batsheva Dance Company, and studied graphic arts at The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. Pollak, the son of renowned Israeli actor Yossi Pollak, was drawn to dance through his relationship with Pinto.
"After I met Inbal, working in dance seemed inevitable," Pollak said. "We see our company's performances as a rare and unusual gift we are able to share with audiences."
When Pinto and Pollak's company performs around the world, the couple realizes they represent their homeland but don't necessarily consider themselves good-will ambassadors. "We may come from Israel, but we are part of everywhere," said Pollak. "Our work is inspired by memories, longings and imagination."
DANCECleveland's executive director Pam Young met Pinto and Pollak last December when she was invited by the Israeli Consulate in New York to attend the International Exposure Dance Festival in Tel Aviv.
"In four days we saw 40 different dance companies," she said. "It was phenomenal to see the depth and breadth of dance being created in Israel."
One of the groups that caught her eye was Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollack Dance Company. "I had seen 'Oyster' several years before and fell in love with it," she said. "To me, the production is Fellini meets Circque du Soleil. The performers are representative of the human curiosities you would find in a circus back lot."
When Young learned that the company was traveling to America in early 2012 to perform "Oyster" in major cities, she was determined to bring the production to Cleveland. She contacted Federation's executive director Stephen Hoffman to seek some financial support toward the $100,000 production costs.
"I was go grateful when the Federation pledged the type of funding that gave us confidence to move forward," said Young. "Federation's funds, coupled with private and public funding, make the production possible."
Bringing Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Dance Company to Cleveland is part of Cleveland Israel Arts Connection, a new Federation initiative to showcase Israeli artists. In a quote given to JTA, art appraiser Erica Hartman-Horvitz, co-chair of Federation's Cleveland Israel Arts Connection, said, "When most people think of Israel, they're thinking of the conflict, maybe the incredible efforts that Israel goes through to survive. We want to illustrate the Israel arts and culture world as something that is more than that for those who might not be interested in Israel for other reasons."
In the meantime Young is eager for the upcoming production of "Oyster." "Cleveland audiences are going to love it," she said.
WHAT: Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Dance Company
WHERE: Ohio Theatre at PlayhouseSquare
WHEN: Sat., Jan. 28, at 8 and Sun., Jan. 29, at 3
TICKETS: www.dancecleveland.org (use code "JFED" for discounts) or 216-241-6000