Philadanco’s Dance Philly Style

by Lewis J. Whittington for The Dance Journal | photo credit: Julieanne Harris

Philadanco Artistic Director, Joan Myers Brown introduced her spring concert series by discussing the four prolific Philadelphia choreographers who have set work on Danco in a wide range of styles, including three premiere pieces, and a company classic.

Brown introduced the works to a sold-out house in the Kimmel’s Perelman Theater during Sunday, April 14 matinee performance which included 100 students from Washington DC, who were clearly captivated by Brown’s program Dance…Philly Style.  Present were Rennie Harris, Dawn Marie Bazemore, Anthony Burrell, and the legendary Gene Hill Sagan, representing three generations of African American dancemakers.

Brown reminded us that Sagan fled the United States in the late ’40s because he couldn’t make a living as a black choreographer. Sagan moved to Israel to choreograph for Batsheva, Kibbutz and Bat-dar dance companies, eventually returning to his hometown of Philadelphia to be part of the black dance theater in America movement. Fourteen years later, his work has been a staple in Philadanco’s repertory.

Bazemore’s Oshun does not shy away from bringing complex social issues to the dance stage. The title refers a Yoruba deity, who was the patron saint of the Osun River in Nigeria. The curtain comes up on scholar/dancer Brenda Dixon Gottschild, dressed in a muslin gold robe, as ‘the elder’ who states the theme with lines from the poem Mother to Son (I’ll tell you son/Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair/it’s had tacks in it, and splinters and boards torn up …) by Langston Hughes.

Gottschild’s forceful recitation of that work followed by Sonia Sanchez’s poem This Is Not A Small Voice offered the stirring final message “This is a love colored with iron and lace/This is a love initialed Black Genius/This is not a small voice/you hear.” The dancers expressed struggle, chaos, and anger as ‘The Elder’ brought messages of resilience, beauty, and pride.

After this prologue, there was an expression of empowerment, a resistance movement, and unity in the face of pervasive racism. The fast-moving segment is scored to jazz funk music of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.  The central couple in a scenario of unrelenting strife and sadness was danced with dramatic eloquence by Courtney Robinson and Jameel Hendricks.

Bazemore’s choreography is most riveting in the final movement, scored to the stunning Infra by Max Richter, with Robinson lifted up by the other dancers and reaching moments of wonder and peace.  Eventually, Robinson still lifted by the group is carried forth in elegiac images as twilight stars rain down.

Even though the middle section of Oshun could have been sharper in delivering the narrative, Bazemore’s unflinching message and choreographic inventiveness provided a dance-theater punch.

Rennie Harris’ Fear, danced by seven women, all dressed-down in black jeans, and set to music by The Cinematic Orchestra’s nu jazz soundtrack suggested something menacing.  Harris’ choreography had a retro- feel of a hip-hop choreographic study. It flows, but the unknown fear has the dancers recoiling or bolting to what remains a mystery. This piece choreographically has a static feel, but there was nothing static about the dancers, who attack Harris’ quicksilver footwork with esprit. They could tighten up Harris’ unison patterns with more ensemble precision.

Gene Hill Sagan’s La Valse is a Philadanco signature piece created in 1979 and scored to Ravel’s music of the same name. The delirium of Ravel’s orchestral is brought to life by the swirling neoclassical balletic of Sagan and its revival beautifully remounted by Kim Bears-Bailey and Deborah Chase-Hicks.

La Valse showcases the Danco women Janine Beckles and Mikaela Fenton, who captivate with their explosive pirouette runs, air-slicing jetes, and technical clarity in the transitional phrasing. Joe Gonzales and Victor Lewis, Jr. are the two men who appear suddenly for flash duets, which showcased their steeled artistry. Frankie Fehr’s costume design has the men in cobalt blue unitards and the women in black voluptuous skirts with gold spirals that flare out during the cyclonic turn sequences. La Valse is vintage Sagan and hasn’t lost any of its lyrical power.

The concert closer, Burrell’s Conglomerate opens with a flood of red backlight and the dancers in a chorus line of silhouettes. The lights come up to expose their blazing red costumes designed by Emilio Sosa. The ensemble of six men and three women pulse to a club groove mix compilation. Fenton, Beckles, and  Robinson each have solos that drive this dance. They chose different partners and wave others away in this witty and engaging narrative.

Burrell is most famous for working with superstar Beyoncé and Mariah Carey but on stage, his choreography definitely has both flash and depth. Burrell’s choreography demonstrates his ability to build exciting dance without the megastars.

Philadanco is gearing up for a slate of events as the company celebrates its 50th anniversary season, including being the host company for the 2020 International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) conference in Philadelphia, which Joan Myers Brown founded in 1987.

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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