Vive la France! @ PIFA

It’s been April in Paris in Philly for the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts. The rendezvous spot was a scaled but otherwise looming replica of the Eiffel Tower in the lobby of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts on Broad St. Most of the area’s established arts organizations participated with a wide variety of theater, dance, exhibitions, salons, opera and music all over town. Here’s a sampling of performances and events.

The opening night gala at the Kimmel was capped off by the premiere of Pucinella Alive, an update of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, in a first- time collaboration of The Philadelphia Orchestra and The Pennsylvania Ballet. Rossen Milanov conducted and Jorma Elo, resident choreographer at Boston Ballet, reconceived the dancing, thematic to the music, with classical and modern vocabulary. Milanov is not only a Russian rep specialist, he is a veteran ballet conductor.

“Pucinella” reminding that the oft played suite does it a disservice. Milanov drew out fine textures of the baroque stream and the modern character drive of Stravinsky’s orchestral narrative. Elo mostly liberated it from its visual baggage from 17th century commedia dell’arte origins and the 1920 version Léonide Massine made for the Ballets Russes. In deconstructing, he still effectively relied on stock character threads and a body coming back to life theme. Elo makes it playful and very connected to the character of the music. He obviously wanted to exploit the rare occasion of a large orchestra onstage with a ballet company.

A scaled down orchestra of 33 was clustered at the back of stage center, but otherwise really projected out with dimension. Elo repeatedly moved the dancers to the side to let the orchestra be seen. Above, singing the songs of love, deceit and canoodling was the superb trio of mezzo Leonard, tenor Nicholas Phan, bass-baritone Shenyang. Among the standout soloists were first violinist David Kim just flawless in the connecting passages and principal cellist Hai-Ye Ni held such sonorous tone, that seemed to ignite the energy between the dancers and musicians, an interplay that is lost to the audience when ballet orchestra is in a pit.

Unfortunately, this event was just a week ahead of the revelation that the Fab Phils were headed for bankruptcy. The musicians were leafleting at concerts with details about the concessions that they have been making in recent years, meanwhile they continued their performance schedule in fine form.

Another festival premier event was the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia’s staging of Stravinsky’s “L’ Histoire du Soldat.” Musical director Dirk Brossé, who is winding up his second season as conductor with them and has really been distinctive in his programming. The work was staged by inventive stage director Robert Smythe that included actors, puppets and storytelling (by the excellent Dan Kern). This production though, was an earnest, but overreaching concept.

Not helping was a contemporized storyline which references current events. Clever, perhaps, but instead of making the message more relevant, it made the obvious parallels trite. Otherwise, COP lead violin Gloria Justen’s burnished playing was, as usual. completely compelling. Collectively, though, the ensemble’s seemed to be playing musical interludes.

Without any puppets in sight the next night, a surprising festival highlight ended up being the return of Christoph Eschenbach in front of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, (he is just one magnifique with them) for a triumphant performance of Olivier Messiaen’s “Turangalila-symphonie” with piano soloist Di Wu attacking those imploding chords with riveting command.

Dance innovations dominated the Paris scene circa 1920 and that spirit was reflected at the festival. Philly choreographer Rennie Harris’ has weighed in with “Heaven,” his version of that riot inducing work “The Rite of Spring” by Stravinsky. The music and Nijinsky’s choreographic paganism which depicts a virginal sacrifice had Paris audiences in the aisles. Harris’s update switches the gender of the sacrifice and but, like the original, keeps the sexes segregated. The sexual subtext is overt, but otherwise his narrative is free-form.

The prologue (to Led Zeppelin‘s “Stairway to Heaven“) has the priestess and her disciples, moving ritualistically on a smoke filled stage in ethereal formations. The trio of men in red harem pants move in and around them in fevered formations. Heaven seems like a middle-draft and will eventually have a tighter narrative, but this pulses with theatricality and arresting stage pictures. But the Sacre in this Heaven are Harris’ expected break, pop & lock hip-hop vocabulary, building the narrative, however cryptic. The men just continue to dazzle with high – velocity acrobatics with xtreme dance difficulty – head pirouettes, punch-front vaults, low-ground layouts that keep evolving into body contortions. Harris still has Rennie just continues to define his genre.

Choreographer Matt Neenan has never been more over the top or inventive than with his PIFA premiere of Ballet X’s Proliferation of Imagination an adaptation of Apollinaire‘s “Les mamelles de Tiresias.” This is definitely a festival’s surreal highlight that mixes dance, music and camp theater. No one can put a pointe shoe in a dance cheek firmer than Neenan, but here it’s just all out dance comedy.

Appolinaire’s story of a baker’s wife who turns into a man and the baker who turns into a woman, but wait…they already have shadows in drag (Tara Keating & Matthew Prescott, both wonderfully animated) dancing their alter sex egos. Colby Damon is the reporter son who wears an atlas diaper, smokes a guitar and can rap (along with tossing off hip-hop skips & crisp entrechets). Gabrielle Lamb is the policeman making very Pink Panthery in black pointe shoes seduces the husband, who is now a woman pumping out babies for cash, when he is not sashaying beautifully in CFM pumps.

Walter Bilderback, the stage director, makes this controlled mayhem and makes this a surrealistic souffle. Neenan just pumps the dances with broad character humor, laced with wicked dance wit. Loved the sparring duets between Anitra N. Keegan and Jaime Lennon (they had one pointe shoe on and one bare foot). It all ends up somehow in a dessert conga line. The joyous musical accompaniment by deft and droll accordianist-painist-composer Rosie Langabeer with Josh Machiz on a Paris-at-midnight double bass and Jesse Sparhawk’s shadowy harp and guitar.

Speaking of crossdressing, more of Gay Paree will be highlighted during the Broad Street Carnivale that caps off PIFA on April 30. Among the acrobats, street performers, troubadours will be the Space Disco of The New York Hustler Ensemble

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