Pennsylvania Ballet II and Philadanco II – Dancing 2 Gether or Maybe Separately!

Photos; Philadanco Dancer by DSMproductions. Artist of Pennsylvania Ballet II, Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan by Alexander Iziliaev
Photo credit: Philadanco Dancer by DSMproductions.
Artist of Pennsylvania Ballet II, Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan by Alexander Iziliaev

by Gregory King, Visiting Professor of Dance at Swarthmore College for The Dance Journal

It is almost impossible to talk about dance in Philadelphia without mentioning Pennsylvania Ballet or Philadanco! Both groups provide a platform to nurture young talent and prepare them for possibly working with their main companies. Philadanco is celebrated for its innovation, creativity and preservation of predominantly African-American traditions in dance and The Pennsylvania Ballet is acclaimed for its performances of classical and contemporary repertoire with a Balanchine base. The aesthetics, repertory, roster make-up, and audience following of these companies could not be any more different. So imagine my excitement when the announcement was made that Philadanco II (D/2) and Pennsylvania Ballet II (PBII) would share the stage at The Painted Bride in 2 Gether We Dance.

I was rambunctiously thrilled.

In a pre- show oration, Francis Veyette and Donald T. Lunsford, Artistic Directors of PBII and D/2 respectively, explained that 2 Gether We Dance was an opportunity for these companies “to blend, to cross pollinate, and to mix things up”. Veyette and Lunsford expressed their enthusiasm about this collaborative endeavor and the audience rode into the performance on the wings of their exhilaration.

D/2 opened the program with Francisco Gella’s Concerto Armonica. Nine dancers swirled through the space in a colorful display of quick paced jumps and turns that painted the stage with each pirouette. The dancers were deliberate in their delivery, but it was Dana Nichols and Edward Gillis who shone with exactness. Nichols glowed as her yellow dress wrapped and spun around her, always finishing each step with a softness that welcomed the next. Gillis, a small framed powerhouse with a commanding stage presence was always sturdy, alert, and fiery.

Choreographed by LaMar Baylor, I.P.E.M. was a richly textured quartet with a center placed bench drowning in a downward focused spotlight. Although unsure of their relationships, I.P.E.M. allowed the dancers to meander around the bench, forming connections cautiously. With each rib cage isolation, arabesque, and battement, the dancers punched the musical accents of George Winston. They moved with urgency establishing their relationship to the bench until their quick gestural solos left them in the four corners of the stage. The stand out piece of D/2’s program, I.P.E.M. had just the tone that described the dancers of the company – passionate, strong, and vibrant.

The following work, Jeroboam Bozeman’s Pursuit left me with questions.

Why was dancer Edward Gillis wearing a long black cape? Why did he disrobe? Why was it important to the story? Though lacking in narrative, and messy at times, Pursuit was dramatically dynamic. The dancers of D/2 invigorated the audience with their high-energy display and their lively interpretation of whatever story they were trying to tell.

A change in pace presented itself as PBII entered the space with skittering bourrées. Francis Veyette’s For Six, was reminiscent of the storytelling sensibility of the well- known American choreographer Jerome Robbins. Port de bras extended from the breathy, wavy torsos of the dancers. This allowed their bodies to come alive which perhaps prevented rigidity, which is sometimes associated with classical ballet, to rear its head. Elinor Hitt was a dreamy, leggy, cascade of liquid movement. She inhaled with her initiations and exhaled to display her quiet power, her suspended extensions, and her daring enactment of Veyette’s movements.

Scared To Fall was a choreographic delight and impeccably danced by the nine dancers of PBII. Choreographed by Shomari Savannah, Scared To Fall had well-tempered partnering and showcased the dancers immaculate technique. Alessandra Mullin, the lone female dancer wearing a ponytail, perfectly captured the movement sensibility of Savannah. She actively manipulated sequential movements through her spine and appeared to be in a constant stated of readiness, giving herself permission to “go”. Shelby Glidden’s A World I Never Noticed was repetitive at times and left me wanting more. Though it displayed the dancers trained bodies, the choreography was lacking but could evolve with some choreographic mentorship.

Although 2 Gether We Dance, had blazing potential to stir up conversation regarding dance collaborations, inclusion and diversity, the words separate and detached kept making guest appearances in mind. Both companies did perform on the stage, but they did so separately. (D/2 performed three numbers then PBII performed three numbers.)

In a post-show Q & A both artistic directors addressed an audience member’s concern as to why the dancers from both organization did not perform in pieces together – after all, the name of the show was 2 Gether We Dance.

In their answer they mentioned that they talked about it but wanted to see if both groups would get along.

“Baby steps,” was their final answer.

An answer I was not eager to accept.

I would have liked the “togetherness” in 2 Gether We Dance to present itself in some form or another. Possibly;

  • Alternate companies work on the program.
  • Perform the repertoire of their collaborators.
  • Join casts, for one or more dances, giving the dancers the opportunity to work together in different pieces of choreography;

None of this was the case. To be fair, we got to see D/2 and PBII in one night, but we also saw two shows. Even the bows at the end, that were supposed to bring them together, seemed unplanned as they kept bumping into each other, unsure of where to go or what to do.

But humor me as I tip toe around the idea of “baby steps”!

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A conversation with a colleague revealed information on a show titled, “Two’s Company”, in which Philadanco! collaborated with Portfolio Associates, Karen Bamonte DanceWorks/Amphora, and Pennsylvania Ballet in the early 90’s. I was curious as to what conversations followed that performance and why collaborations didn’t continue?

If such a concert took place in the early 90’s, why are we still taking “baby steps”?

Maybe it’s the more comfortable answer.

Maybe we fight for inclusion while fighting to stay separate, giving us permission to keep fighting.

Or maybe we need to work harder at more interwoven collaborations.

The dancers of D/2 and PBII, Bonita Bell, Mikaela Fenton, Leah Friedman, Edward Gillis, Sumolia Islam, Dana Nichols, O’Shae Leon Sibley, M. Amber Spivey, Brittney Williams, Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan, Jacqueline Callahan, Elinor Hitt, Cassidy Hall, Alex Hyman, and Durante Verzola, were impressive reminders of what the physical future of dance holds.

2 Gether We Dance has great potential in becoming a vessel for limitless possibilities – if we stop taking baby steps.

Reviewed at Painted Bride, May 27th 2015, 230 Vine Street
www.philadanco.org  |  www.paballet.org

About Gregory King

Gregory King received his MFA in Choreographic Practice and Theory from Southern Methodist University. In addition, he is certified in Elementary Labanotation. His dance training began in Washington DC at the Washington Ballet and later at American University. He went on to participate in the Horton Project in conjunction with the Library of Congress. His training continued at the prestigious institutions such as The Dance Theatre of Harlem and The Alvin Ailey School. Gregory has performed with The Washington Ballet, Rebecca Kelly Ballet, Erick Hawkins Dance Company, New York Theatre Ballet, Donald Byrd /The Group, The Metropolitan Opera Ballet, New York City Opera, and Disney’s The Lion King on Broadway.

His desire to integrate social activism into his choreography began with his graduate thesis, where he used the platform to push the conversation about homophobia and heterosexism. He is a lover of movement exploration and describes his aesthetic as a classical base with a theatrical flair.

He has taught at Boston Ballet, Boston Conservatory, Boston University, Bowdoin College, Dallas Black Dance Theatre and Texas Ballet Theatre. Additionally, he has served as a teaching artist in public schools in and around Dallas, as Resident Guest artist at Temple University and Assistant Professor of Dance at Dean College. Recently, Gregory received the Excellence in Teaching Award from the National Society of Leadership and Success. He is currently a Visiting Professor of Dance and Consortium on Faculty Diversity Fellow at Swarthmore College where he teaches Modern and continues to use his choreography as a means for social change.

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2 Comments

  1. 2 Gether We Dance was the launchpad for many conversations. I’m a recent transplant to Philadelphia and one of the things I’ve noticed is the lack of support between genres, artists, academics, and research. I Loved watching those beautiful dancers on stage. They were FULL. But we can’t exist in this dance world with our heads in the sand. The only thing about that show that had any “touch” of togetherness was the audience. I really enjoyed seeing Danco supporters and PB supporters in the same venue. I really do hope we see more..and by more I mean….inviting DancoII choreographers to choreograph on PBII..and vice versa, have PBII Dancers apart of Danco on Danco (with a twist), maybe even create a program where they both go into the schools and do lecture demonstrations together. I am hopeful, I really am.

  2. 2gether we Dance was a wonderful opportunity for both companies. I would like to encourage all, who cherish ballet to consider making a charitable donation to each of the companies. I know Philadanco could use new Marley floors. If you’ve visited their studios, you might have noticed how worn they are.

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