At the behest of Serge Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky agreed to look over a little known commedia del arte score attributed to Pergolesi. The result was the 1920 "Pulcinella" that changed the course of his work and was important to the emergence of modernism. By looking back to the past, Stravinsky found he could move forward. It's considered his first neoclassical work. He preserved much of the score but added harmonies and rhythms.
The Brooklyn Philharmonic's forward thinking, innovative Music Director Michael Christie built BP's Opera House season finale around the commedia dell'arte spirit. In his third collaboration with a local dance company, he commissioned Complexions Contemporary Ballet to create a new "Pulcinella."
The company has a penchant for the theatrical. Choreographer Dwight Rhoden had been leaning toward Broadway, but by all appearances, he found a fit in Stravinsky's commedia redux, and perhaps a way to move forward, by looking back.
The engaging program began with two musical works. A bright performance of the light, carnivalesque, 1938 "The Comedians, Suite for Small Orchestra" by Dmitri Kabelevsky and Zerbetta's Aria from Richard Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos," sung with clear and sweet coloratura by soprano Nili Riemer. She takes us into her confidence and holds us rapt till her end—a wink. The librettos for this and "Pulcinella," the curtain closer, were helpfully spelled out in the program.
Complexions then performed their 2007 "Hissy Fits," now cogent on the larger BAM stage. (It premiered at the Joyce.) We're now inured to Rhoden's idiosyncratic moves and he is better integrating them, for example, when virtuoso Bryan Arias takes his foot to his mouth, twice. This time it has inevitability.
The music, J.S. Bach, performed upstage by a orchestra members Deborah Buck (violin,) Chris Finkel (cello,) and Ken Bowen (piano,) made the difference in this inspired "Hissy Fits," a showcase for Complexions' high-octane dancers and theatrical imagination.
To Allegro from "Sonata for Violin No.2," the pairs duet. Arias is a lone dancer who could be seen as the joker, oddball, Pulcinella? Yet his tours de force leave us satiated and unquestionably wedded to his plight.
Aria from "Goldberg Variations," is a poignant solo and duet with Desmond Richardson as the brokenhearted lover. He swims fluidly into shapes with his curvilinear arms and torso. The poses don't say, "look at me," they tell the relationship story and exteriorize feelings. According to "Hissy Fits," anxiety is the human condition, whether we are alone, with another, or in a love triangle.
In a third section, to Chaconne from "Partita for Violin No.2 in D minor," a motif recurs, a horizontal line of dancers holding hands like paper cutouts. It is strong, and adds something to the similar Forsythe device. In another borrowing, a horizontal bank of lights drops halfway down adding a claustrophobic feeling to the tension in the dancers final phrases and formation; they are linked in pairs or a trio while Arias jetés across the stage. There's a feeling of freedom in his run, but also one of running away.
The motifs and characterizations are expanded upon, or re-invested in, in "Pulcinella." Arias plays the stupid thief, and even better, Gary W. Jeter II plays his friend Furbo, a double, shade, or second. Their playful duets are the fascinating highlight of the evening. Each is totally invested in his character. Furbo dies and Pulcinella leads the cast of mourners, sitting on a diagonal, in a magic divination to revive him.
At times this Action Cast of company dancers stands out too much, only filling the stage and musical passages; they look like cheerleaders in brash red and stripes. They do highlight Furbo and Pulcinella in their cool and neutral colored costumes and gripping, dramatic dancing. Pimpinella is Christina Dooling. The young dancer tackles this difficult personality with technical wizardry, but offers little opportunity for us to connect.
"Pulcinella" was created and rehearsed in a short time, and with guest conductor Emil De Cou stepping in at the eleventh hour for Scott Yoo who took ill. Nevertheless it delighted and impressed. De Cou had conducted ABT's "Othello" with Richardson.
The ending is a perfect wedding cake tableau with Dooling rocked, or rather swung, in Arias's arms. The BAM crowd went wild. Complexions surpassed all expectations. Those who took a chance were truly rewarded.