di Piazza o d’Occasione
Pillow, Becket, Mass., July 17
In a theatrical production, when audience participation succeeds,
it can astound, by pinning down the very essence of humanity.
You’re made to notice beauty in the casual, or purpose in
the random. But what makes the device—the cliché, really—succeed?
And when the risk doesn’t pay off, what has gone wrong?
Last week at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, a performance
by Teatro di Piazza o d’Occasione provided some answers by
pointing out the challenges of merging audiences into choreography.
T.P.O. (as the group is known) was founded in Florence in
1981 as a “visual theater” company. In 1999, under new directorship,
the group began working in video art and dance.
In 2002, the directors, Francesco Gandi and Davide Venturini,
created the first of several works that utilize a high-tech
mat sensitive to the touch. Performers (and—oh boy—audience
members) appear to interact with computer-generated images
projected onto the mat from above; they can also trigger sound
Japanese Garden and The Painted Garden are two
such interactive works. For their alternating performances
last week at the Doris Duke Studio Theatre, I saw the first.
The venue’s seating, true to the Italian troupe’s public-minded
name, had been refitted in the round. Audience members, after
removing their shoes in the theater’s foyer, sat on four multitiered
blocks, trimmed in handsome vinyl cushions in primary colors.
The blocks, like a tiny, elegant boxing ring, nearly enclosed
the white mat at center.
Just 50 minutes long, The Japanese Garden held three
sections. Opening the first, Stefania Rossetti took a seat
at one corner of the square—close enough to show that her
nape was peeling from sunburn—and announced, “The key to entering
our garden is a story.” In halting English, Rossetti told
of a Japanese boy, Shiro, who travels to a meadow, a lake,
a bridge, flowers, and the sea. We heard gravel crunch underfoot
and water gather at an edge. As the section closed, Rossetti
walked across the mat’s dappled green meadow, leaving an enormous,
nearly tactile footprint with each step.
Such an opening gave the inkling of narrative: an illustrated
journey of wonders. And it was initially tempting to read
symbolism into each image, the sparkling lucidity of which
found a parallel in exquisite sound design by Spartaco Cortesi.
But the remainder of The Japanese Garden faltered in
its development, whether as an abstract vision or as a concrete
The middle section involved a solo dancer, Carolina Amoretti,
whose movements—standard-issue body doodles and inversions—played
out over Shiro’s meadow, lake, bridge, etc. When a real-life
moth fluttered to her from above, Amoretti blew a tiny, unscripted
kiss. The audience giggled at this, the freshest moment all
evening. After some time, even the central novelty—of dancing
atop an enormous quasi-iPhone—had worn off.
In the third section, which seemed to last a half-hour, the
two dancers invited audience members onto the mat for playtime.
Many invitees showed wonder and good humor. One group happily
tried to stay atop a lily pad that darted all over; another
got to reenact the famous piano scene in Big by playing
the hovering slats of a wooden bridge. Still, the only assignment
here was to stay on top of something moving. If this was theater,
it was also an expensive game of Simon Says. Each of the seven
or eight times a new group took the stage—sometimes with ginger
dread, other times in elation—the work could only move further
into zero-sum territory.
At last, Rossetti and Amoretti returned, to scatter rocks
about the stage in a series of tiny Zen gardens. Flatly, with
none of the weight of successful theatrical conclusions, Rossetti
said, “Shiro, he told his story by taking some leaves and
stones, and he created a garden.” Lights out.
Without discounting the enjoyment of the onstage participants,
I question the production’s effort to draw me in and make
me care. If you put random people on a stage and get them
to move, don’t expect it to be automatically interesting.
Because day-to-day success here hinges on the youthful inspiration
of an audience (and this may have been an off night), it is
only more imperative that the directors use fail-safe methods
to shape the action.
Not incidentally, T.P.O.’s Web site overtly bills these performances
as children’s theater, which I didn’t know until after attending.
Jacob’s Pillow, in its advance publicity, chose not to spell
this out. Expecting a show made for a general audience, but
seeing a work made for kids, my fair interpretation grew complicated.
Either way, audiences of all ages deserve a little structure
now and again.