by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal
24 years in, The Shut up & Dance benefit for Metropolitan Area Nutritional Alliance (MANNA) is as vital as ever. The one-night only performance by the dancers of the Pennsylvania Ballet and guest artists raises upward $130,000 for the non-profit organization. It remains what many consider the feel good event of the year, bringing artists and community together for a great cause.
There was extra buzz in the crowd with Martha Graham Cracker (aka Dito van Reigersberg) would be hosting this year. WXPN’s Michaela Majoun, who has been indelible emcee for the past twenty years, passed the torch to Martha Graham Cracker, who quickly had the packed audience in the Forrest Theater eating out of her hairy hand.
The benefit is known for its elaborate opening numbers and this year it was more of a flash dance to the Bangles 80s hit “Walk Like an Egyptian” and the dancers of the Pennsylvania Ballet dancing like an Egyptian in goofy, pulsing chorus lines. Meanwhile Martha Graham Cracker was being carried onstage splayed out on a palate in a Nile goddess gown, jumping right in the dance line, executing drag dives and scrambling hilariously up on her 5 inch heels.
The comedy continued as Martha and her band accompanied Ian Hussey and Craig Wasserman’s in their tango tableau ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’ The men locked in a seductive abrazzo, lusty dips and darting footwork. Wasserman though proved a bi-dancey partner when Alexandra Hughes appeared to steal him away from Hussey. Mid-dance partner switching spelled the last tango for him.
Pennsylvania Ballet II member Durante Verzola choreographed ‘Spirited Syncopations’ scored to Leroy Anderson’s novelty orchestral. Verzola thrilled this crowd with sharp, witty and ballet forward dance vignettes. Jackie Callahan, Maggie Fiering and Sarah Gabrielle Ryan- on point with male partner Michael Holden, sustaining quick tempo phrasing, unfussy leaps, lifts and turns, so vibrant it is almost like a celebration of classicism and vitally with non-derivative balletic language by Verzola.
Colby Damon choreographed ‘Maxime Magdalena’ a hypnotic solo with Amy Holihan in a velvet purple robe flying on and off dramatically to music by Claude Debussy played live by pianist Nina Hu.
The UArts student ensemble of 11 equally wowed the crowd with ‘ (In)Formation’ choreographed by Thomas White who also danced his hip-hop – African fusion piece to music by Kanye and Beyonce, that has the feel of arena choreography, with attitude posing and sizzling breakout phrases and has the ensemble pulsing as one.
Martha Graham appeared to announce the next pieces with the disclaimer that this section was about to “get very homosexual.”
Hussey was back this time partnered with James Ihde for ‘Of The Same’ by New York based choreographer Kristen Drauker with music by Philip Glass. The dancers are in a half-crouched wrestler knot that releases to an adagio unison in a piece that keeps evolving with intimacy, beauty and human tenderness.
It was followed up in a flash dance interlude ‘Madness’ by choreographed by Aaron Anker and danced with pyrotechnical abandon by PB apprentice Peter Weil.
Then the four men of Brian Sanders JUNK turned the heat to a boil in ‘Carried Away’ as Billy Robinson, Tommy Schimmel, Regan Jackson and Timmy Fatscher, in black leather pants are sprawled over metal chairs, undulating to club music by Peter Brown with the refrain “do you want to have sex with me?” Sanders has them in salty micro-moves then lusty gyrations that build to a full out acrobatic-dance with flips, inversions, at one point the men hop on the thin rail tops of the chairs and the audience burst into applause as they flew across the stage in Cossack lunches.
Martha staggered on ordered everyone to cool off in the lobby with Prosecco during intermission and twenty minutes later was back in a blinding white Princess Laya drag, crooned David Bowie’s Life on Mars as the PB dancers also let loose with jetes, pirouettes and joyous movement.
Richard Villaverde followed with his electrifying solo that choreographer Nicolo Fonte made for him last summer in BalletX’s premiere “Beasts.” Villaverde is dressed in a black tutu and he moves like liquid marble of a dance character going through a symbolic transformation, Fonte tapping Villaverde’s technical artistry, passion and precision.
Former BalletX dancer Jesse Sani ‘Banana Boat’ with island martini lounge music for two male – female couples who at first are hetero beach blanket bingo, but then pair off as gay couples in tropical heat.
Kelsey Hellebuyck danced Mikhail Fokine’s “The Dying Swan” accompanied by pianist Trisha Wolf and cellist Arlen Hlusko. Hellebuyck gave a finely detailed performance, with gorgeously expressive port de bra and her eyes conveying the drama of moment. Her interpretation drew extended applause from the audience.
The SU&Dance audience was just as exuberant in acknowledging the updates on the expansive work of MANNA, now preparing 70,000 free special dietary meals designed as part of healthy treatment to clients in need with HIV-AIDS, cancer, diabetes and other life threatening illnesses.
The event’s producing director Ian Hussey, came onstage at the end of the show, visibly moved as he thanked his production assistant, Alexandra Hughes and the management team at MANNA headed by Sue Daugherty and Rob Saxon, the Forrest Theater tech teams and all of the people who donated their time and talents to produce the event. And of course his fellow Shut Up & Dancers. The last number ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ was scrubbed for some reason, but everyone did just that at the after party at the club Voyeur.
***Cover Image: Richard Villaverde in Beasts, photo – Madeline Scarcelli
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