Danco burns the floor with Black Steam

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

Joan Myers Brown always presents new Philadanco ballets for spring season in Philly and she introduced her program “Black Steam” at the Perelman Theater telling the audience that she wanted also to bring back two company classics by her favorite choreographers, next to two of her current favorite dancemakers.  The repertory works by legendary black choreographers Gene Hill Sagan and Talley Beatty, still looking fresh next to premieres by Dawn Marie Bazemore and Christopher Huggins, both former members of the company, now full time independent choreographers.

Bazemore’s four part “Box Out” begins with the exuberant sound of Herbie Hancock’s jazz instrumental ‘Red Clay.’ Jazz music on the dance stage is a rarity, so it was great to hear Herbie Hancock’s jazz orchestral ‘Red Clay in the first section called “The Fellowship.”  The full company in a silhouetted cluster, then in sharp solos, duets and trios in up-tempo angular movement, with dancers characterizing solo lines of the sax player, or a picking up the counterpoints of the piano. William Burden is the soloist in a bow-tie who dances perilously on three cubes and later, is the focus of a more somber scenario unfolds in the next section ‘Strings’ set to a somber vocal by Nina Simone.   Bazemore evokes the intoxicating milieu of the ‘cool’ era, and Anna-Alisa  Belous’ stylish costumes have the men in vests, women in tight nightclub skirts.

In “Class Ceiling” the Danco women are suddenly on those cubes for “Glass Ceiling” donning 40s factory garb, flexing their arms like Rosie the Riveter, and attacking the witty mechanical choreography set to a staccato a capella vocal “Jazz for 23 Voices.” The final section is a present day scenario for the full company with a voice over of Nikki Giovanni’s poem “But Since You Finally Asked” that confronts themes of systemic marginalization  and  pervasive racial injustice in America.  “Box Out” episodic structure could be tightened, but it is even more choreographically ambitious that her riveting previous ‘Danco premiere “A Movement for Five.”

Gene Sagan’s “Sweet Agony” set to music by Philly’s  great soul singer Teddy Pendergrass’s  “All Because of a Woman”  with Joe Gonzalez partnering Rosita Adams, Elyse Browning and Courtney Robinson ( in backup singer midnight blue silky ensembles).  Sagan’s sensual dance moves are laced with ballet phrases to match Pendergrass’ passionate vocals.  Next is a trio with Victor Lewis Jr., Janine Beckles and Clarricia Golden a quick tempo love ballad “Can’t We Try”  then  Sagan’s finish set to Pendergrass’s blazing live recording of  “Only You” (got what I need), a full- throttle ensemble number that is thrillingly danced by the whole company. The ballet was expertly restaged by Philadanco’s assistant artistic director Kim Y. Bears-Bailey, who was in the original cast.

Christopher Huggins’ “Fruit New” deals directly with the horrific legacies of racism.  The first tableau scored to ‘Strange Fruit’ the historic protest song describing Southern lynching of black men, first introduced at Café Society in New York by Billie Holiday. William Burden dances next to a noose that dangles over the stage as Nina Simone’s searing version of the song. Huggins’ choreography is graphic in its depiction of what the victim of lynching is going through. Burden staggers around in paroxysm of movement, expressions of physical and psychic assault and impending death. As graphic as it is, Huggins overriding theme is the dignity of this character’s body, mind and spirit, no matter what indignity is done to him. Burden gives an unforgettable performance.

Next was the hip-hop duet “Looking for Something” danced with exuberance by Jameel Malik Hendricks and Victor Lewis, Jr. but looked a bit choreographically uninventive.  But, the Huggins’ full ensemble sections that follow “Gunshot” and “This Bitter Land”   are hypnotic and exemplar of Huggins high-voltage ensemble choreography. Set to a political rap about racial divides by Nas and Erika Badu, Huggins devises movement imagery that powerfully reflects the assault on black and brown bodies and the perilous political landscape all but the very rich and privileged are facing in America. By then end, the dancers cluster together in solidarity, the soundtrack repeats the refrain and a dancer steps forward and challenges the audience by repeating the word “So what are you gonna do?”

Talley Beatty’s “A Rag, A Bone and A hand of Hair” set to music by Prince and Earth, Wind and Fire just explodes with company esprit and dance fireworks.  A live recording of Prince’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ just also has the company at mach-speed movement patterns that segue into a funk instrumental by Earth, Wind and Fire.  Beatty fueling Danco’s signature dance fireworks displays of rhythmic lines highlighted by mach speed pirouettes and jetes that are as dynamic as ever.

About Lewis J. 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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