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REVIEW: Philadanco: A Versatile Philadelphia Connection

by Kat Richter, MA for The Dance Journal

These days, there’s nothing unusual about a ballet company donning sneakers or a self-professed modern dancer performing a complicated petit allegro.  Just last month the city of Philadelphia saw renown flamenco dancer Rosario Toledo trading her heels for pointe shoes but when it comes to blurring the genre lines, there are companies who try and companies who succeed; Philadanco is the latter of the two.

The Philadelphia Connection, which premiered at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater last night and runs through Sunday, featured an eclectic program; the dancers had to be sultry one moment and graceful the next, changing their personas as often as they changed their costumes.  And yet they did it, despite the fact that extensive ballet training required so often strips a dancer of his or her ability to get down.

The evening began with Gatekeepers, an ambitious ballet by Ronald K. Brown.  The score felt a bit dated, as did the space age-looking costumes but the lighting design was superb and the dancing was flawless.  The choreography, which blended Capoeira-like footwork with all the spinal articulations you’d expect from a company steeped in the many manifestations of African dance, was seamless—so much so that all of the “To dream is to be alive” voiceovers seemed like overkill.

Picking up the pace, Tribute comprised a piquant homage to Philadelphia International Records.  Dressed in blue crop tops and short skirts, the women of the company hustled, somersaulted and leapt their way across the stage while the men, in tight black pants and green tank tops, performed a series of effortless contractions.  Tribute was high energy from start to finish with head bobs and jazz hands aplenty; the work was sexy (and possibly sexist considering all of the butt grabbing that took place, but the men were on display every bit as much as women so if there was any foul play, it was equal opportunist sexism at the very least).

In complete contrast, Suite en Bleu opened with the men of the company dressed in navy blue unitards and the women in flowing, periwinkle gowns.  An older work, Suite showed the dancers at their most lyrical; it was ballet no doubt, but the expected phrases were constantly interrupted by turned in port de bras or pendulum-like lifts.  With chests raised towards the sky, the dancers seemed to bounce off the floor from one turning stag leap into another to the music of Handel and Bach providing a safe yet sophisticated contrast the each of the earlier works.

The high point of evening, as expected, came with the world premiere of Rennie Harris’s Wake Up.  In afro wigs, hoop earrings and skin tight jeans, the women of the company circled their hips in slow motion, daring the audience to not take them seriously.  Framed by a gunshot and the horrific sounds of a dying man taking his last breaths, the work played with themes of death, resurrection, definition and defiance using hip hop as its medium.  It was unexpected—this was not the melodramatic so-called “lyrical hip hop” of So You Think You Can Dance—but rather a distilled, crystallized version.  The footwork was furious at times and controlled at others proving that the dancers of Philadanco are brilliantly trained yet still versatile enough to feel and make the audience do the same.

Kat Richter is a freelance writer and teaching artist.  Her work can be found at www.katrichter.com.

- Kat Richter

Kat Richter is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer and professor of anthropology. She specializes in travel writing, dance criticism, personal essays, humor and relationship advice.

Her work has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Baltimore Sun, Dance Magazine, Museum and Skirt! and she has been featured on Good Morning America, HuffPost Live and in Marie Claire Magazine.

Kat Richter is Co-founder of The Lady Hoofers, Philadelphia's only all-female rhythm tap company.

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