Run, skip, prance or shimmy, just don’t walk to PHILADANCO’s Xmas Philes

by Kat Richter for The Dance Journal

Run (or skip or prance or shimmy, just don’t walk)- to get your tickets to PHILADANCO’s Xmas Philes at the Annenberg this weekend ( December 12-14). The evening-length premiere of choreographer Daniel Ezralow’s distinctly Philly-style holiday show brought audiences to their feet on Thursday night and concluded with a post-show champagne toast to the indefatigable Joan Myers Brown, who will turn 88 on Christmas Day.

If the title is a bit confusing, it’s because Ezralow was commissioned to create the original work (a shorter 40-minute collection of vignettes) in 2000, during the height of popularity of television’s The X-Files. The idea was to create a new, Philadelphia tradition to serve as an alternative to The Nutcracker, and in this Xmas Philes knocks the ball out of the park with an expanded 70-minute program including 22 vignettes. They range from the campy, high-kicking, Rockette-style Rudolf, performed to a mambo version of the holiday classic by 7 dancers in glitzy booty shorts and white, elbow length gloves; to the poignant White Christmas, which confronts audiences with the less picturesque reality of a black man sleeping on a park bench.

This is the beauty of Exralow’s creation: you’re laughing one moment and crying the next, as the ‘DANCO dancers light up the stage with their fierce technique and humorous antics, as was the case with Twas, featuring William E. Burden and Jameel M. Hendricks. Dressed in elf-like pjs, the dancers relayed their Christmas lists to the audience with an exaggerated, almost minstrel-style delivery, but then, like so many great artists (both Savion Glover in Bamboozled and Camille A. Brown come to mind), they turn the 19th-century performance trope on its head with impeccable technique and flashy, acrobatic leaps.

The second act dragged a bit, with a Santa’s-in-sunglasses number and a fan dance that played on Ezralow’s MOMIX and Pilobolus roots, but there were moments of comic relief sprinkled throughout, with such a dizzying array of costumes changes that you never, even for just a moment, get bored.

It was the closing of the first act, Jingle Bells, that really stood out, and allowed the impeccably trained dancers of the ensemble to strut their stuff. We get a hint of what’s to come with four dancers in rubber rain boots and orange and black jumpsuits tapping out Jingle Bells onto the stage- are they janitors? Prisoners? Isn’t this supposed to be a family-friendly Christmas show? Their numbers multiply until the entire ensemble is marching in unison, row by row, from one perfect formation to the next, and although the jingle bells atop their boots lend a hint of playfulness to the number, the music cuts out and the dancers rely on body percussion to build their own infectious rhythms and keep the beat going. It’s the history of African American dance—indeed African dance, or at least one strand of the larger diasporic tradition—writ large: a modern reclamation of the South African Gumboots tradition, in which white, Apartheid-era mine owners didn’t bother to properly drain their gold mines because it was easier (and cheaper) to simply dress their black workers in rubber boots.

And yet, Xmas Philes is a celebration—a joyous, occasionally irreverent, yet always elegant celebration—that Philadelphians will hopefully be able to enjoy for years to come.

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