Philadanco Dancers return to the Annenberg Stage

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

Philadanco dancers Janine Beckles and Joe González returned to the stage via Livestream broadcast from the Annenberg Center’s Harold Prince Theater stage in a program of solos and duets. Also featured was a new piece titled, With-Held, about dancers navigating this difficult year.  It was the third broadcast of the Annenberg Center’s fall virtual season as the venue continues to be closed to live audiences due to Covid restrictions.

Two days before the broadcast, Beckles and González talked about the program via ZOOM from Philadanco studios in West Philadelphia. They described what it feels like returning to the stage after a seven-month lockdown.

 In addition to taking and teaching classes, remotes, Beckles, and González are also moving into new roles with the company’s restructuring. Beckles will be assistant to newly named director Kim Bears Bailey, who has worked closely with the company’s founding director Joan Myers Brown (more about that later). González will be the director of D/3, the student performing ensemble.

But this week, the dancers are lazar focused on the performance comprised of four short but demanding pieces. Beckles danced an excerpt from choreographer Billy Wilson’s Rosa about the iconic black civil rights activist Rosa Parks.  González selected a solo from Dawn Marie Bazemore’s For Five that depicts events around the Central Park Five’s arrest and wrongful conviction.  

The dancers commented that both works will resonate more than ever in a year of continual incidents of police violence and racial injustice targeting black men. 

Their premiere of With-Held examined what dancers “have been going through during this whole pandemic and (not) being able to connect in person.” González explained.

“We’ve been making sure we quarantined and are getting tested so we really could partner with each other. But it was really the… angst, to want to hold on to something to something that you hold so dear. ….and hold on to an old way and not being able to and what that feels like.”   

Beckles added that even though virtual daily classes, rehearsing, and cross-training have now become the norm for dancers, “being online is a drastically different experience.”  “It feels good just to be in the studio and working with Joe,” even if we “can’t really partner” with the same technique and expression they have spent their professional lives perfecting.

As unknowns about Covid transmission looms over everything, all of the normal activity and behavior that a dancer has become accustomed to must be rethought to minimize risks. The intimacy of physical partnering –  touch, holding, breathing, lifts, positions, masks, even basic transitional steps between combinations have to be examined for safety.

But, despite the uncertainty and many months of working in isolation, “my mood lightened immediately when we walked into the studio,” Beckles intimated.  It was the first time the dancers were back together rehearsing in months.  Philadanco was on tour in Germany, the first leg of the company’s whirlwind 50th anniversary year when the pandemic hit mid-March, and countries were closing their borders and canceling flights.

Flash-forward to this week. The dancers said they would only have the day of the upcoming performance on the Annenberg stage to run-through tech rehearsals. They have working with the camera and the theater’s tech crews via phone calls and texts to work out choreographic specifications, camera angles, and other artistic specifications for each piece.

“We’ll figure it out. Everything we need to do to be safe and distanced. “Gonzales noted, “But we can handle it.”

The Livestream Performance

Any concerns about same-day blocking with the cameras were unnecessary. The live-stream was seamless and captured the artistry and energy of the performances. Kudos also to the theater’s tech team for the lighting design for each piece. 

The midnight blue lighted stage set the atmosphere for With-Held (set to a moody ballad by Ólafur Arnalds) as Janine Beckles and Joe González, enter from opposite sides of the stage and circle each other cautiously. The duet is built on our vernacular of new body language, pedestrian, and dance wise. The lift combinations, for instance, are mostly astride or facing away from each other. 

The dancers negotiate their ‘safe’ physicality, then move apart and dance with unison that is quintessential Danco signatures – the precision unison, pirouette variants, and explosive aerial work. Gonzales has such elevation on one of the jete variations that he seems to hover at one point. 

Despite the months of being off the performance stage, these dancers have obviously not skipped a beat performance-wise.  Their technical artistry and chemistry sublime even onscreen. 

An excerpt was then performed from signature Danco repertory Rosa by Philadelphia choreographer Billy Wilson, who is most famous for his Broadway show choreography (Bubblin’ Brown Sugar, Eubie). He created Rosa for Philadanco in 1990. It is a dance portrait of black civil-rights icon Rosa Parks. This was the emotional highlight of the program.  Beckles, as Rosa, costumed in a dusty-rose dance gown, sweeps around two bus seats in the middle of the stage. The choreography dramatizing Parks’ courage that would break the racial line that prohibited black citizens from sitting anywhere except the back of the bus.

Beckles is breathtaking as she sweeps over the stage, expressing every emotion that Parks could have been feeling before making her stand by sitting down. The folds of her dress swirl around her as she flies in and out of jumps with gorgeously held arabesques that break into frantic dashes around the stage. In Beckles’ final spins, her gown flaring out, her hands raised to the heavens as Roberta Flack belts out the blues spiritual, creating a go-to dance church moment to remember.

The issues around the arrest and wrongful conviction of Black and Latino men known as the Central Park Five is the theme of Dawn Marie Bazemore’s For Five scored to music by Sigur Rós. González’s solo from this ballet expresses the interior emotions of one of the Five, as he is handcuffed and splayed on the ground at the mercy of police brutality. The paralytic moves to break free are juxtaposed with floating slow-motion passages. The muscled González, like Beckles, expresses emotions of psychological torment and pain, memorably without overacting.

Beckles and González, in sporty outfits, portray flirty lovers in Ray Mercer’s contemporary ballet Super 8. The dancers’ masks are off for this piece. Some of the lift sequences and double-tempo acceleration in the back half looked a bit risky (and off paced in moments), but they locked in for Mercer’s high-velocity finish that burned the floor.

After the half-hour of dancing, a Q&A, hosted by Annenberg artistic director Christopher Gruits, fielded audience questions for the dancers from the live chat feed.  Joan Myers Brown joined the dancers remotely from her home office and talked about what the company has been doing to wait out the pandemic.

“We were fortunate to keep the dancers on salary for most of the year.  Hope to bring them back early December. I want to keep my dancers in shape.”  Brown said.  She also gave an update on plans for the company.

“I’m strengthening the infrastructure (of the company), so if anything happens to me, I want the company and organization to be strong and in place and keep the company for the next 50 years. We are trying to keep our dancers in shape and keep them supported. They have to be ready…When we come up on the other side of this mountain. We want to come up dancing,” Brown assured.

Philadanco’s Oct. 29, 2020 performance is a ticketed event & screenings can be accessed on the www.AnnenbergCenter.org  website.

***Photo courtesy of Philadanco

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