Joan Myers Brown’s choreographic vision

by Lewis J. Whittington for The Dance Journal

At Philadanco in West Philadelphia two Sunday’s ago, artistic director Joan Myers Brown was personally taking care of any number of company duties. Also on hand for her dancers on the 2nd-floor main rehearsal room where choreographer Iquail Shaheed was rehearsing the troupe for Brown’s Spring home season program “Success Stories,” at the Kimmel Center. It is one of four works by former Philadanco dancers- Hope Boykin, Anthony Burrell, Tommie-Waheed Evans and Shaheed- who are now accomplished choreographers, directors, teachers, and mentors in their own right.

“You see the potential early,” Brown commented. More specifically Brown not only saw the artistic drive of these choreographers, for starters, she cultivated it by giving them a performance platform “Danco on Danco” the yearly choreographic performance series and other collaborative opportunities through the company. “I might not like everything they do, but it’s about finding your path, finding your vocabulary.  I want to leave a good record,” Brown intimated.

A short list of that assures a ‘good record’ of choreographers commissioned by Brown includes such legendary dancemakers Talley Beatty, Milton Myers, George Faison and Carmen DeLavalade and a new generation including Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Ron K. Brown, Dawn Marie Bazemore, Rennie Harris, Matthew Rushing, Camille A. Brown and Christopher Huggins, just to mention a few.

Brown said she originally wanted to present five choreographers for “Success Stories” but could only afford four. That she had only one request of them and that was to create “something that you’ve always wanted to do, and I’ll provide everything else.”

It was the perfect opportunity for Iquail Shaheed to finish a piece that he started five years ago titled ‘The Order.’  “It was part of my grad school thesis, but I always felt it was unfinished. Actually, when I was creating it then, I always had Philadanco in mind. Something about how I was accessing choreography reminded me of my training at Danco. So the synergy was there,” he said.

Shaheed was sidelined last year with a serious foot injury but was again sweeping over the studio floor demonstrating turn variations and leaps from plie positions.  He was back at Danco and loving it. “You have your career, but it will always feel like home,” Shaheed said after the rehearsal.

He explained that the theme of the piece delved into “a battle between men and women.” But not as often is in dance, about romantic relationships, but about equality for women and the fight against the power structure, Shaheed wanted to honor women who he felt were always in struggles for equality.”

It is important for Shaheed that he doesn’t “take over the narrative, but to collaborate with these dancers and let them tell their stories,” he explained, adding “it seemed perfect with this company because Danco women are always so strong in every way.”

Part of the mission of Shaheed’s company Dance Iquail is to serve as an artistic forum that explores social justice and civil-rights issues. As a gay black man, he wanted to honor women who have inspired him creatively and personally. “Themes I wanted to talk about the oppression, but more so the liberation of women of color.  So now it seemed perfect in the era of ‘#MeToo and ‘#TimesUpmovements,” he said.

Shaheed describes the work environment, no matter what struggles the company might be going through financially. “Philadanco always uphold its standard.  To be able to continue to produce at the highest level of dancers,” he reiterated.  “As a choreographer, I know what I can depend on with the dancers. Philadanco is not only a national treasure, it is an international institution, and Aunt Joan always around and invested.”

Hope Boykin will not be able to attend the premiere of her work ‘Testimony, Evidence Given By a Witness’ set to African American traditional songs with themes of community strength and resilience. Boykin is currently on tour with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) at the University of California, Berkeley. She was back in Philadanco’s studios for several weeks earlier this year and returned for a final rehearsal session last week.

“‘It’s so meaningful to get a call from JB. Joan see things in us that a lot of times we can’t see ourselves. She has always supported me from the time that I made my transition to the Ailey company. She was at the opening night there for me. It’s thrilling, always to be back in Philly and this is my third commissioned piece for Philadanco.  Joan tells me the truth and what she thinks. Doesn’t always feel sweet, but it’s always what it should be. She was there for my opening night at the Ailey company. And she’s here for me now.”  Her own company is HopeBoykinDance.

Anthony Burrell was a brilliant young dancer with Philadanco and also performed with Eleone and Koresh. While attending the University of the Arts, Burrell was invited to join AAADT by then director Judith Jameson.  Burrell is a creative director of AB Dance/Breaking Barriers and is an educator, actor, and choreographer for tv, film and pop music. This week Burrell was putting the finishing touches on his ballet “Endangered Species” with the Philadanco dancers for the upcoming company premiere.

Tommie-Waheed Evans will premiere “WITH(IN)VERSE” his latest of several works he has choreographed for Philadanco, including his 2014 ballet ‘Aubade’ set a score by Francis Poulenc, that was performed onstage with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Evans started his own company Waheed Works in 2006, is on the faculty at the University of the Arts and is Artist-in-Residence at Philadanco. Evans received BalletX’s 2017 Ballet Fellowship, where he premiered his ballet ‘In Between the Passing.’

Shaheed said it was thrilling to be on the same choreographic program with other Danco alums “That Joan would have this idea of doing Philadanco Success Stories and that she would pick these choreographers to be on this program. Tommie and I went to the Ailey school together. Anthony and I were in the training program there. And, at Danco, Hope was a teacher I idolized, all of us are still so connected.”

The Kimmel Center Presents Philadanco: Success Stories April 13-15, go to www.kimmelcenter.org for ticket information.

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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