by Hannah Joo for The Dance Journal | Photo credits: Ivory Allison
Two of Philadelphia’s trademark companies, PHILADANCO/The Philadelphia Dance Company and RHPM/Rennie Harris Puremovement, joined together on stage for an evening performance entitled, Straight Outta Philly. The juxtaposition of RHPM’s hip hop movement against Philadanco’s modern vocabulary celebrated the diversity of black and brown bodies while tackling relevant, urgent social issues through dance. Joan Myers-Brown and Rennie Harris, the founders and directors of PHILADANCO and RHPM respectively, did not compromise their individual visions for dance and still succeeded in uniting dancers despite their different forms of embodied expression.
The evening began with Nuttin’ But A Word!!! Suite choreographed by Rennie Harris and performed by RHPM. The title of the piece refers to a cultural phrase used in black communities in the U.S. According to the program: The full phrase is “You ain’t said nothing but a word”; loosely translated, it means “Your words mean nothing – pay close attention, because what I do next will trump anything you have to say.” Rennie Harris applies this phrase to hip hop, which constantly evolves through the individuality and creativity of those who carry and continue the legacy of hip hop culture. This philosophy was displayed clearly through the interactions of the dancers, who each could be identified by their individual style, attitude, and strengths. Even while remaining in sync through the most intricate footwork or seamlessly transitioning between hard hitting and smooth qualities, the dancers were always in unison but never identical.
A Movement for Five, choreographed by Dawn Marie Bazemore and performed by the company of PHILADANCO, examined the systems that wrongly accused five boys of a serious crime in Harlem in 1989. Bazemore’s choreography utilized simple, clear gestures that resonated strongly with me. As the cast deliberately trace their own bodies with their hands in canon, I admire an undeniable strength underlying graceful motions. In Section II: For Five, Joe Gonzales, Jah’meek D. Williams, William Burden, Victor Lewis, Jr., and William Rhem, each break out into a series of sharp gestures while standing in a small cluster. The dancers lie down on their sides, backs to the audience and hands behind their back. In the center, Joe Gonzales emerges from this position, moving through all of the individual gesture sequences. The intensity of his movement heightens rapidly, until he seems to be convulsing. Gonzales is consumed by the raw energy of his own motions and collapses onto the floor. Other motifs of dancers falling, catching, and leaning against one another carried through a sense of mourning and regret throughout the piece.
A Day in the Life was one of the more theatrical pieces of the evening. Choreographed by Rennie Harris and performed by Phil Cuttino, Jr. and Larry Southall, the piece delves in a political and social consciousness of the dancers. They continue to yell in frustration, sometimes fear and desperation, questioning why certain things keep happening to them. Without directly referring to racial and social injustices, the duo shares their anger against their circumstance. In the end, Cuttino, Jr. lies on the floor, lifeless as Southall hovers over him and unable to revive his partner.
Thang Dao’s Folded Prism was visually stunning and mature in the choice of movement. PHILADANCO’s cast performed this piece, donning all white unitards. Folded Prism created a dreamlike state where the dancers seemed to move as flawless, pristine bodies. While the work was aesthetically beautiful, it offered little else. In comparison to the other pieces in the evening, which offered commentary on social or political issues, Folded Prisms was simply an audiovisual experience. In the moment, I was mesmerized, but I did not come out of the piece feeling different or changed in any way.
Finally, the Philadelphia Experiment closed the show, inviting all dancers from RHPM and PHILADANCO to the stage. Set to a background video displaying scenes of Philadelphia and historical documents like the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, this piece paid homage to Philadelphia’s energy. The versatility of all the dancers was truly impressive and exciting to watch as all the dancers absorbed Harris’s choreography. Philadelphia Experiment offered both a celebration of Philadelphia’s culture and a defiant stand against its social shortcomings. The song repeated the line: Do you remember the day of slavers? In a joyous exhibition of rhythm and physicality, the cast proved the power of dance to form both unity and protest.