In a smoky room reminiscent of a speakeasy, the soft sounds of Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” whisper in the background as patrons sip cocktails offered with admission.
Produced in partnership with the Kimmel Center, an innovative collaboration of song and dance brought duende, one of Philadelphia’s newest performance groups, and the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble together for an evening of music by Schoenberg and others, alongside the choreography by duende’s cofounder, Chloe Felesina.
The inspiration for the collaborators was the Darmstadt movement, a school of avant-garde composers who emerged in the 1950s, which is the subject of the Curtis Institute’s All School Project. The Curtis 20/21 Ensemble, led by artistic director David Ludwig, worked with duende to create a performance that was both aurally and visually appealing.
Duende selected Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, a melodrama for voice and chamber ensemble that connects to numerous extramusical concepts, for this collaboration. Wearing a red dress, soprano Alize Rozsnyai set the tone for the evening as she belted Schoenberg’s “Gigerlette.” She casually meandered around the casual performance space while crooning playfully, giving the audience permission to relax.
Although dance is usually performed with music as its driving force, this cabaret-style performance allowed dance and music to coexist in innovative ways. The performance showcased dancers Felesina and Edgar Anido, whose physicality heightened my Schoenberg experience. The intimate setting allowed the dancers of duende to directly interact with the ensemble. At one moment, Felesina hovered over Rozsnyai’s shoulders, using her hands to tease the latter’s neck before climbing onto a chair, still hovering over her but never touching her.
With her wandering hands, Felesina led musician George Fu to the piano, where he played with abrasive enthusiasm before welcoming the sounds of the flute and the cello while dancer interacted with singer and musical instruments interacted with each other. Whenever there was an interaction, there was a harmonious blend.
Felesina’s choreography was theatrical and contemporary with balletic undertones. Dancer Anido was animated and nimble, jumping and contorting his body as if he were a character in a video game. Always in motion, he was articulate and agile, staying still long enough to invite Felesina back into the space. Full-bodied in their movement, they had a palpable energy. They used their joints to awaken the space around them before Felesina welcome Anido’s weight, as he surrendered to her embrace. As soloists they physically contributed to the story being told; as a duet they brought the story to life.
Collaboration, not dominance
This performance was about a mutual collaboration and the audience’s connection to the whole experience, so neither dancers nor musicians dominated. Nothing was more indicative of this than when Felesina led members of the orchestra in a choreographed sequence of skitters, body shakes, and gestured kisses, which were accompanied by audible chuckles from the audience.
Going to the theater is often a proscenium experience, so informal settings can create a less elitist atmosphere and be the catalyst for meaningful conversations about art. With their commitments to creative collaborations and bringing their audiences physically closer to the art they create, duende is not just a show but a full artistic experience; one welcomed with drinks in hand.