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At 21, vintage Shut Up & Dance

by Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal

Everyone was ready for the ‘Showgirls’ theme after those provocative posters peppered the city and on Saturday night the annual Shut Up & Dance benefit for MANNA (Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance) was in motion onstage at the Forrest Theater with What a feeling (dancing for my life) Irene Cara’s Flashdance theme blaring.  Hard to top last year’s live poster re-stages, but it was obvious that the dancers of the Pennsylvania Ballet were ready to turn the page to 21, with a show of even more passion, creativity and well, rhinestones, flesh, and scary jazz-hands.   

Alexandra Hughes was at the center of the pole-dancer Cinderella story, until Jermel Johnson started stalking the stage hooker nylons and mile high heel runway stomp to make sure she has no completion. This Showgirls opener turned into is a continuing story.  

Ian Hussey directing for the second year, orchestrated the joyful concert and packed it with choreographies from the PB roster, veterans of the company and guests from BalletX and Koresh Dance Companies.  The structure was adjusted from previous years, to give a more uninterrupted dance drive and flow to the concert. Course, it would be bad taste to review a benefit, but it is important to track this event as an in-house choreographic forum for new choreographers among the dancers of the Pennsylvania Ballet.

WXPN’s Machaela Majoun was on hand for hosting duties and MANNA director Susan Daughtery also spoke to praise the dancers and all that they have meant to the organization. Daugherty addressed the growing fiscal challenges for MANNA as the organization keeps expanding its services to provide meals for clients living HIV-AIDS, cancer, ALS and other serious long-term diseases. Hussey made a breathless speech to praise everyone’s efforts in putting the show together and expressed the continuing commitment among the dancer in their partnership with MANNA.

SU&D phCandice DeTore
Phoebe Gavula and Alex Ratcliffe-Lee in Lucy
Photo credit: Candice De Tore

As for the dances first a disclaimer-  the memory flares and fades with so much going on, so apologies in advance for anything not noted, it is not deliberate.

Among the many random highlights at SU&D 21 – 4 or 5 trees’ by Enza DePalma was actually three women facing away from the audience in sensual and body sculptural dance of bare backs.  Also very fleshy and dramatically beautiful, Alrick Thomas’ ‘Decomposed’ a startling work for seven dancers, in a driving contemporary ensemble set to music by Jacelyn Pook. Thomas naturalizes balletic formations that kept expressing in a thrillingly athletic and erotic tableau. In contrast,  two couples in classy boy-girl partnering for Harrison Monaco’s ‘Lucy.’

‘Speak Easy’ by Alexandra Hughes set to 20s jazz-age rag by Parov Stelar is inventive and complete funsies with strong partnering and ensemble esprit in those Charleston kicks. Earlier, Hughes danced in the duet ‘Hanuman’ with Lillian Diphazza set to Spanish guitar music with choreography by Craig Wasserman‘s a stylish en pointe study of flamenco piques and arabesque decorations.

Meredith Rainey’s ‘Fall In’ danced by Jermel Johnson, set to eastern European music by Guy Klucevsek.  Rainey’s cryptic body contortions and hyperextensions executed with Johnson’s martial arts intensity and featuring his signature steeled layouts.

‘Ennuithe bawdy duet on a bench by Matt Neenan set to Rufus’ funky classic ‘Tell Me Something Good’ had Neenan himself back on the dance stage in powder blue briefs, bed head and t, drowsily annoying Brooke Moore, who was roused enough to give as good as she got. Befitting the showgirls theme, Jake Helgenberg weighed in with an objectifying parody of music video dancing with six ballerinas turning up the lock-stepping ‘Heat.

Alex Ratcliffe-Lee’s ‘synaesthesia, 2003’ set to the dynamic electrostring music of Max Ricther is a stunner. Completely inside the music and it just keeps blooming in unexpected structure and performance intensity. Chloe Fetesina’ Remembering the Festival’ set to music of Handel has eight dancers in Renaissance court dance variations with double tempo minuet variations break to balletic cartwheels and somersaults. Captivated (but without a concrete fix) for Eric Trope’s ‘Carry On’ a compelling lyrical contemporary classical piece for five dancers.  A blinding slo-mo strobe and green fog atmospherics also keeps you guessing in Gunnar Montana’s ‘Weedwhich actually was the classic urban myth of girl, meets, wrestles and tames the monster. Abigail Mentzer and James Idhe were beauty and the botanical beast.

Gabby in DS
Gabriella Yudenich as Dying Swan
Photo credit: Candice De Tore

It was for so many years Michel Fokine’s ‘Dying Swan’ was a signature for retired PB principal Arantxa Ochoa whose impeccable classicism always made such a statement.  The torch has been passed to Gabriella Yudenich who danced it luminously this year. Those liquid arms breathtaking and she projected stellar interpretive accents, mostly in line pacing, to make it her own.  Yudenich, like Ochoa, completely reflexive to the live accompaniment by the stellar Trisha Wolf on piano and Vivian Barton Dozor on cello playing  Saint-Saens‘ music.

The finale had Weed reappearing running with a stage length ribbon, then the Showgirl cast, Hughes not letting Johnson steal the show and got rid of her with a decisive shove. Moments the pair were both center stage in the stiletto kick-line finale set to, what else, Journey‘s anthem “Don’t Stop Believing” .

A large chunk of the audience mulled around out front deciding whether to head to Voyeur for the after- party. 20 minutes later the club dance floor was already filling up with the club dancers burning the floor even before the performers arrived.

- Lewis Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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