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Everybody Dance Now

By French Clements

Teatro di Piazza o d’Occasione

Jacob’s 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 effects.

The 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 story.

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.

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