Philadanco’s Global Artistry: Four Choreographers, One Aesthetic

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photo credit: Lois Greenfield

By Gregory King for the Dance Journal

As part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, world renowned and locally grown, Philadanco contributed with nights of  first-rate dancing to sold-out houses.

I was particularly drawn to the program because the show was advertised as a celebration of Global Artistry; four choreographers from different countries setting works on the dancers of the company. Vietnam, Philippines, USA, and my birth land, Jamaica, were  the countries represented and I was eager to witness these choreographic offerings.

Admittedly, I did have expectations.

I expected these works to be painted with colors from the country of their choreographer, for subtle cultural representations to waft through each piece, and for these four pieces to be different from one another in language and definitely in aesthetics.

Instead, I was served four contemporary works, swimming in the classical ballet vocabulary.

I’m not sure what I expected from the choreography in Labess, but Jamaican choreographer David Brown created a piece that could have easily been crafted by anyone, from anywhere. From the Tunisian title to the soundscape provided by Belgian-Congolese performer Zapp Mama, very little movement vocabulary reminiscent of Jamaica was visible. Because of my connection to Jamaica (the land of Reggae music, people with the creativity to frequently produce new dance styles, and the brightness of costumes that accompany carnivals and Jonkanoo parades), the lack of adequate representation felt personal. Influences from dancehall to the more traditional Kumina, could have added to the body of the work but unfortunately, Labess was just another contemporary ballet.

Although disappointed at the lack of island flair, a clever duet performed by the sturdy Adryan Moorefield and the dynamic Janine Beckles, re-engaged me in the work as their chemistry on stage was evident. Moorefield partnered Beckles effortlessly, providing the support she needed in all her off-centered positions.

The most classical of the night’s programming, Francisco Gella’s Between the lines (Philippines) was the perfect vehicle for displaying the technical proficiency of the Philadanco dancers. Gella transported me with scenic simplicity and elegant lines.

Choreographed by Vietnamese choreographer Thang Dao, Folded Prism opened with a clump of dancers floating in a sea of white. They swayed with uncertainty but moved as one before creating a vortex, pulling a female dancer into its center.

Initially, Dao’s choreography bordered on dull but then the work opened up room for conversations surrounding a topic of grave importance to some dancers.

After undergoing surgery, and now fuller than his former self, dancer Tommie-Waheed Evan sailed through the piece, parading a body that some may think has no place on stage. Although Evans has dealt with some physical challenges it was obvious that his training has outlasted his injury and that dancers come in many shapes and sizes. I applaud Dao and artistic director Joan Myers-Brown for supporting the viewpoint that performing should not only be reserved for those with classically  trained ballet bodies.

Ray Mercer’s Super 8! (USA) was the appropriate high-energy piece needed to close the show. A colleague of mine for many years, Mercer’s vocabulary is heavily rooted in the contemporary aesthetic. So much so, that I kept searching the work for his personal voice. I saw all his influences but struggled to see his addition to a saturated.

One thing Mercer succeeds at is crafting beautiful duets that stay with you long after you leave the theatre.

In the second section of Super 8! Mercer constructed a duet of striking polarity. Dancers Moorefield and Victor Lewis Jr. played out a symbiotic relationship that was skillfully directed by Mercer. Always within close proximity of each other, their energy matched their ability to execute the many tricky transitions they were handed.

It would be sacrilegious not the mention Rosita Adamos who managed to score  featured roles in all four ballets. While the other female dancers were quite capable, Adamos lithe body was the perfect vessel for versatility, unforced extensions, and technical exactness.

Maybe I took the title of the show too literal.

Maybe there were traces of  cultural inspirations that were abstractly displayed and I simply missed them. Maybe I just wanted more than pirouettes and arabesques.

Maybe there was no need for these choreographers to pull from their heritage.

But what an opportunity to share cultures and introduce an audience to aesthetics that may be unfamiliar to them.

Choosing to embrace a popular commercial aesthetic over exploring diverse movement potentials made the night of global artistry,  one that could have been renamed “Four choreographers, one aesthetic”. Nevertheless, the commitment the company dancers brought to each piece was astounding, as they energized the audience, proving that even with some financial set backs, Philadanco will continue to influence the Philadelphia arts scene.

 

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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6 Comments

  1. Perhaps you were not there at curtain when I explained in our travels around the world I found choreographers who were constructing work that altho they had not seen the work of each other had a sameness. I never attempted to do a folkloric concert, but to show that in dance there is often a common thread. It seems you always pre-determine what should be presented instead of waiting to see what will be presented. I admire your wanting to have the work of artists address many aspects. Think about what the artist wants to say or the project that is being presented. It isn’t just your world of dance, others have no expectations, they just enjoy or dislike what they see.
    And I still love you……..

    • The love is real. See, we all attend the theater for different reasons. Some will go see a show because of who is dancing, the rep the company is performing, or maybe the title of the show. Fortunately, or unfortunately for me, I was excited about the title “Global Artistry” and I wanted to see how the title played out onstage. I will continue to say an opportunity was missed…whether I am agreed with or not. It’s interesting that most are fixating on THAT aspect of my article, even though my piece spoke about how Gella’s piece showcased the technical proficiency of the dancers,how Mercer is fantastic as creating duets, how Rosita was beautiful, and how the company commented on (intentionally or unintentionally) a grave issue in dance. I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s true that people have no expectations. We all have expectations…it’s just that I get to write about mine. See, I’m not interested in likes or dislikes, or in high legs or pirouettes. I am interested in where dance can go, where dance is going, and the steps different choreographers and companies are taking to push dance in different directions. If a night is billed as “Sand and Serpents”, make no mistake, I am going to the theatre with expectations and I will state why I had those expectations. The truth is,I am just one voice and hopefully, my writings give people things to think about. Congrats again on your season.

  2. Oh Babe, It’s your first PIFA. You got suckered into their marketing tactics: 5 mil? a HUGE % of that goes into branding, marketing. Philadanco NEVER promoted its show as having any ethnic aspects, just that its choreographers were from around the globe. Love what you said abt Tommie. He was grt, if a little understandably self-conscious. But what a trooper. I didn’t know he’d been injured. Next time check your expectations in the coat room. I never even bring them along. :)))

    • I agree with you about never promoting the show as having any ethnic aspects but I think as artists we sometimes miss certain opportunities; an educational opportunity for the Philadelphia audience to take a trip around the globe through these choreographers’ works (again, my expectation). Last year when they did “2gether We Dance” with PABII, that was an opportunity for true artistic cross-pollination. They never advertised that they would be “dancing” any pieces together….but boy it would have been fantastic. I still question the need to emphasize that these choreographers were from different countries if they all dabbled in the same aesthetic? They could have gotten four Philadelphia-based choreographers and have a more diverse show. The dancers were lovely though and they did their job well.

      • As someone who was an original cast member of Labess when it was set on Philadanco over ten years ago I must say that David Brown felt that his work was more influenced by his mentors (Martha Graham etc.) rather than his cultural background. Global artistry seems to make space for artists of diverse backgrounds to create work from their own perspective which may or may not directly relate to their place of birth. While I agree that acknowledging Tommie Evans return to the stage after recovering from a serious injury is warranted, two paragraphs dedicated to any dancers weight seems unnecessary.

        • Thank you for you comment Dawn. When I write about what I saw on stage and/or the possibility of where the art form could go, it is with an openness for engagement. I continue to say we as artists have a responsibility. A responsibility to use the craft to empower, educate, and advocate. I will continue to advocate for pushing boundaries and use opportunities to talk about the issues that matter and not just the execution of steps. My mention of weight in the piece is a conversation that people are having. The conversation is not an old one; it’s happening in the academy, it’s happening in companies, and the issues of gender, race, and weight, are always important to talk about in my book. So honestly, I don’t think it’s unnecessary at all. What are we doing to promote health body image and to be inclusive in a field where weighing dancers have been known to happen? Not talking about it would be doing more harm than good. My mention of weight, albeit referencing the dancer, was more about DANCE itself.

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