If you still believe that ballet is done in glittery tutus and that orchestras play only for audiences of 80-year-olds, I’m sorry to inform you that you are a bit behind the times. The performance of “Pulcinella Alive,” which I attended at the Kimmel Center last Sunday, had audiences of all ages on their feet for well over a two-minute encore, as the ballet de corps of 10 dancers, dressed plainly in white slip dresses as well as shirt and pants, took bow after bow.
Mainstays in our city’s arts and cultural scene, the Pennsylvania Ballet and The Philadelphia Orchestra joined forces this past week to feature a split bill, with both pieces drawing strong connection to one of the world’s most revered dancers, choreographers and founder of the Ballet Russes (also known as The Russian Ballet), Sergei Diaghilev. The Philadelphia Orchestra first presented Spanish composer Manuel de Falla’s “The Three-Cornered Hat,”, followed by the Pennsylvania Ballet’s own revival of the 18th century Italian ballet “Pulcinella.”
If you’re like me, the word “orchestra” has you picturing slow, lulling strings and mellowed brass instrumentation – so it came as an awesome surprise when the distinguished members of the ensemble broke out in enthusiastic, rhythmic hand claps minutes into de Falla’s score. The troupe also provided noisy rattles, a number of compelling drum parts and a gong amidst a truly accessible musical arrangement. The orchestration was incredibly varied over the span of the first act, often light and staccato, but simultaneously dark and menacing. The instrumentation jumped around faster than you could locate the source of the sound; “Three-Cornered Hat” skipped around at incredible speed between weighty full-ensemble unisons and playful solos for wind and brass.
The Orchestra was led by associate conductor Rossen Milanov and included sparse but impressive operatic solo parts. Also, as set and costume designer for the original performance, a few of Pablo Picasso’s paintings created for “Three-Cornered Hat” were displayed on two screens above the orchestra.
Come intermission, the Philly Orchestra relocated downstage to give ample space to the Pennsylvania Ballet. Under the direction of Boston Ballet’s resident choreographer Jorma Elo, the group exhibited a new rendition of dream team Sergei Diaghilev and famed Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella,” one which disregarded the traditions of the 1920s in ballet and took a much more modern approach. The court dance harps on the Italian commedia dell’arte form, narrating the tale of Pierrot-like hero Pulcinella, who is discovered kissing another woman by his girlfriend, Pimpinella. He and his friends comprise a scheme to mock Pulcinella’s death and then resurrection by a magician, in order to win Pimpinella’s forgiveness, and the play ends in the marriage of the couple.
Verizon Hall’s proscenium stage had nine columns lit up in color against the back wall – these served as the only piece of set design in what originally was an exceedingly ostentatious show. The simplicity of both the stage setup and the anonymity of the dancers’ costuming not only made it laborious to follow the prima ballerina, but impossible to figure the story’s plot. Until I looked up the show on my own, I would never have known in a million years that both death and marriage took place in this performance; however, the abstract choreography and modern aesthetics of the piece more than recovered for the absence of a century-old story.
The actions of each dancer were incredibly dynamic, stretching from highly skillful and graceful to playful and grotesque. With the women performing on point, dancers engaged in a hoard of innovative and classical lifts and spins, propped by impressively long, extended legs. The unison work was a bit off, but whilst paired in couples and performing solo in opposition, the ballet dancers wowed audiences with gorgeous technique. On the other hand, attention was mostly held by the odd angularity in a majority of movements. Straying from typical conventions, the ballerinas integrated the use of the head, extended arms and hips in Elo’s choreography, twisting and contorting hands, arms and torsos in interesting and unnatural positions. The orchestration behind the scenes played so flawlessly, that at times I felt I was watching a movie and forgot the musicians themselves were still present.
Finishing to a thousand bravos and solid, lengthy applause, The Philadelphia Orchestra and Pennsylvania Ballet proved that collaborations of the fine arts in Philadelphia may bring together an incredible audience — and makes for a wonderful bill.