Joelysa Pankanea gives Bicycle Thieves a musical tune-up for PuSh Fest

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      Is there anything Joelysa Pankanea can’t do? The 41-year-old composer has won multiple awards for her work in musical theatre. She’s written scores for films, for chamber ensemble, and for choir. She’s trained as a classical pianist, is an expressive performer on the marimba, and is increasingly exploring the world of electronic music. But, she says, she can’t sing.

      She might be lying.

      Over the phone from her West End home, Pankanea warbles the main theme from her new adaptation of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 film Bicycle Thieves, and while she has a small voice compared to some of the belters she’s written for, it’s clear and true. And that melody! Pankanea’s wistful, waltz-time tune is somehow both fresh and nostalgic, which makes it a perfect fit for De Sica’s black-and-white masterpiece.

      An early and acclaimed example of Italian neorealism, Bicycle Thieves depicts a family trying to survive amid the rubble of post-Mussolini Rome, where owning wheels, even pedal-powered ones, can mean the difference between eating and not. In today’s crumbling economy, there are parallels to be drawn, but De Sica’s formal innovations also keep his images relevant. Working without sets, often using ordinary people rather than trained actors, he blurred the line between drama and documentary in a way that still inspires filmmakers today.

      Pankanea’s initial response to Bicycle Thieves was more emotional than intellectual, however. Her project, which involves wiping the original soundtrack and adding both a quartet of live narrators and her own original score, was commissioned by former PuSh International Performing Arts Festival artistic director Norman Armour.

      “What he basically asked me to do was create a live score to a film, and it had to be an old, iconic, public-domain film,” Pankanea explains. “But it could be any film that I wanted, from any country.…Not being a huge movie-history buff myself, I didn’t really know where to start, so I just started asking people for recommendations.”

      She quickly realized that Bicycle Thieves fit the bill. “Within the first half an hour of the film I was completely locked in—I just couldn’t get my eyes away from the screen,” she says. “And by the end I was all teared up, and I just knew this was the film I was going to do. It was sad enough for my music—for some reason I just gravitate towards really, really sad music, so there’s that. And I knew that this was a film I could watch a hundred times over and not get tired of seeing.

      From the start, Joelysa Pankanea knew she'd never get tired of viewing the 1948 classic Bicycle Thieves (above).

      “It’s just such a simple story,” she continues. “The humanity in it, the hope, and also the feeling of having your hopes completely dashed. That’s just a human thing; it happens to all of us.…And I just loved how real it was.”

      There was only one problem: Alessandro Cicognini’s existing score, which at the time must have seemed as revolutionary as the images it accompanied. “It’s so fantastic,” Pankanea comments. “The main theme is so catchy and beautiful and balanced that the very first time I watched it, when I chose it, I immediately knew ‘Uh-oh, I cannot listen to this film with the sound on ever again.’ And I didn’t. I watched it with the sound off, and I worked out all my themes with the sound off. It took me a little while to get the original theme out of my head, but eventually my own little quasi-Italian folk song that I’ve based the entire score on just came out.”

      At PuSh, Pankanea’s music will be interpreted by an all-star sextet of violinist Molly MacKinnon, cellist Marina Hasselberg, bassist Mark Haney, pianist Emily Jane King, and percussionists Martin Fisk and Michael Simpsonelli, with the last doubling on mandolin and guitar.

      “I wanted to have a pad of strings, because I wanted to create that sort of cinematic feel,” the composer explains. “So I split the band into half strings and the other half were instruments that I thought could pull out that folk feel whenever I needed it.…So with that dynamic I could go into the folk stuff, I could do sort of comical moments, and I could get really serious as well. I thought it was the perfect instrumentation.”

      And not only will Pankanea bring her compositional flair and directorial savvy to Bicycle Thieves, she’ll also bring part of herself. She’s no stranger to unsettled societies, having spent her first decade in Nairobi, Kenya, at a time when prejudice against South Asians was rampant. Living in an environment that “bred a sort of fear” might explain why she’s so drawn to the sound of sorrow—and why she’s a great choice to revive De Sica’s saga of hunger, worry, and crime.

      The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival presents Bicycle Thieves at Performance Works next Saturday and Sunday (January 26 and 27).