Traveling through time with Philadanco

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal

Philadanco is celebrating its 18th season as a resident company at the Kimmel Center, where they regularly perform on the stage of the Perelman Theater, a splendid venue to see dance. Over this past weekend, the troupe presented works by two choreographers deeply associated with their own company, as well as the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater – Milton Myers and Christopher Huggins. The concert featured a world premiere from each of the choreographers, as well as the revival of one of their pieces from the company’s repertory. Thus, audiences had a frame of reference to consider how their choreography has developed over the years, as well as the always welcome opportunity to be transported by Philadanco’s uplifting dancers.

Milton Myers is a former Alvin Ailey dancer, and teaches Horton dance technique at the Ailey Company, the Julliard School, and Philadanco. Lester Horton was an American dancer/choreographer in the 1920s – 40s who developed a dance technique that emphasizes angular, controlled, and explosive qualities of movement. Ailey studied at Horton’s school in Los Angeles in the early 1950s and carried Horton’s legacy forward in his masterpieces such as Revelations.

Pacing is the first work that Myers choreographed for Philadanco, in 1986, and it has aged well. The piece seamlessly combines traditional African dance with American modern dance. A percolating musical score by Francis Bebey provides a strong rhythmic undercurrent for the dance. A trio of women (Janine Beckles, Dana Nichols, and Mikaela Fenton) call the dance together, their undulating torsos moving like silk. A group of six men trace lines and circles on the floor, their controlled, sculpted physiques accented by flinging hand gestures and sudden full-bodied swoops. A trio follows, with Victor Lewis Jr. and William Burden passing Rosita Adamo back and forth in acrobatic lifts, walking and turning all the while.

Finally, the full company fills the stage, the men and women dancing in an alternating call and response pattern. The rich reds of the women’s short dresses and the blues of the men’s tights are bathed in a warm glow of light (designed by William Grant, III). The piece ends with the group pulsating, pacing in a circle. It feels like a fresh morning, full of the promise of a good day ahead.

Myers’ new work for the company, Waves, is striking and sparse. The percussive jazz score is by Philadelphia composer John Levis, a frequent collaborator of Myers’. A powerful quartet of women (Adamo, Beckles, Fenton, and Courtney Robinson) deliberately unfurl their energy, like trained warriors. They are costumed in short, black unitards, appearing in front of a simple geometric background cast by Serena Wong’s lighting design. Each of the women performs a solo as Waves unfolds, then they come back together in a quartet, exuding confidence.

The women in Waves are grounded and stately. Their arms intriguingly frame the empty space around them. The choreography surprises at times with an exhilarating plunging quality. Myers has created an ode to the strength of Philadanco’s women, who are keeping the distinctive Horton dance technique alive in their bodies.

The additional choreographer on the bill, Christopher Huggins, is also a former Ailey dancer. Philadanco presented an entire evening of his dances in 2013, including When Dawn Comes, which was revived for this program. Huggins’ work is psychologically driven and masterfully showcases Philadanco’s dancers in joyous celebration.

Dim lighting (designed by Al Crawford) illuminates four women sleeping in a pile in the opening moments of When Dawn Comes. The dancers, Beckles, Fenton, Robinson, and Clarricia Golden, toss and turn, restless in their sleep. Next, Adamo and Joe Gonzalez cling and then push each other apart in a duet that’s also a power struggle. At one point, she lifts him in the air, then tosses him on the ground and steps on him.

In the final group section, Philadanco delivers a dawn that has been worth waiting for. The light comes up, and the men wearing blue tights and women in white dresses dance in harmonious pairs, performing beautiful high-flying lifts. The men create a magically kinetic quartet of overlapping jumps and falls to the floor. In a final twist, the men drop the women back into the sleeping pile where they started.  Jeff Story and Rachel Grimes composed original music for When Dawn Comes.

The final work on the program, Huggins’ I Come As One, But Stand As 10,000, references the #metoo movement in America. Illustrating the words of a Maya Angelou poem, the dance opens with one woman (Golden) standing alone in the spotlight (lighting designed by Wong). She is soon joined by six more women, who represent the 10,000 female ancestors who came before them. An unseen force weighs on them: they dance hunched over, holding their hands over their mouths. In the second movement, “No means No,” one woman (Adamo) is physically controlled by four men, who move her around the stage. She is fitful and tries to get away.

The final movement, “The Protest,” starts out full throttle and builds from there. Darryl Hoffman’s original score contributes to the spunky uprising. The entire company of women are on the march, an infectious bounce in their step. The men come strutting in too – now they are the women’s allies. The whole group is rowdy, weaving and throwing punches in the air. They claim their freedom with huge leaps and descents to the floor.

Philadanco has been going strong for almost 50 years, led by National Medal of the Arts honoree Joan Myers Brown. The company represents Philadelphia on stages across America and throughout the world – vibrantly presenting and preserving African-American traditions in dance. It’s not only the Eagles who are true Philadelphia champions!


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