Shut Up & Dance 2021, a virtual feast for MANNA

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

The 29th Annual Shut Up & Dance benefit performance for MANNA (Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance) staged on April 24th at the Forest Theater by the dancers of the Pennsylvania Ballet was a virtual event still as spirited as ever.  For years, the one-night-only event filled the Forrest Theater, delighting audiences in its inventiveness and the chance to see new choreography by dancers from the Pennsylvania Ballet.

The Dancers of the Pennsylvania Ballet’s partnership with MANNA started with its mission to deliver meals to people with AIDS at the height of the epidemic thirty years ago. The dancers of the PA Ballet conceived the benefit performance as a proactive response to the devastating impact the epidemic was having on the dance world. Since then, MANNA has continued to expand its operations to serve people facing other life-threatening illnesses and this year provide its services to more clients due to the Covid-19 pandemic. They have not skipped a beat.

Last year’s virtual benefit fundraiser was mostly done remotely with live feeds from dancers via Zoom and audience members dancing in their homes.  SU&Dance fans still kicked in considerably despite the scaled-down event, with donations to MANNA matching previous funds. This year was virtual again but featured a slate of newly choreographic works filmed at various theaters around the city.

Pennsylvania Ballet corps de ballet dancer Emily Davis, a first-time producing director for the event, had even less time to organize the program because the Pennsylvania Ballet was in rehearsal and filming their digital stage Spring series, which included a slate of premieres and classical repertory works. Davis navigated all the extra challenges and safety protocols to ensure SU&D 2021 would be a substantive line-up of dance performances.    

Here are some of the highlights from the show-

The first film presented at the VIP pre-party by PA Ballet principal Sterling Baca laced together choreographic ideas by choreography students filmed from his apartment. Scored to the adagio movement of Beethoven’s majestic 7th symphony, it was a fitting soundtrack to match the now universal theme of living in isolation.

Co-hosting from MANNA’s kitchen, Philadelphia cabaret stars Martha Graham Cracker and John Jarboe kicked off the show costumed as hunks of swiss cheese, and the food puns kept spilling out of them – “We are here, we are Schmere, get used to it.” “Hava Gouda Time.” These vaudevillians were fabulous chanteuses, kicking off the performance with a medley of ‘The Way We Were’ and ‘Memory’ from Cats, accompanied by musical director Heath Allen on keyboards

‘Woke Up to the Sun’, choreographed and filmed by Jack Sprance with jazz piano, paced the five PA Ballet dancers in a barre dance of ballet basics- ron de jambe, grande plie, demi-pointe, attitude, and a few flirty piques.

Brian Sanders’ JUNK previewed his upcoming piece Dragonbutter with an aerial acrobatic dance solo by Jess Adams, which was dare-devilry at its hairiest, speaking of which Ms. Adams dancing auburn locks mesmerized. 

Charles Askegard, ballet master at PA Ballet, choreographed and filmed Se Bruciasse La Citta, a balletic solo full of athleticism- mach speed pirouettes variations, matador lunges, jete runs, and Spanish dance flair with a smoldering attack by Jack Thomas.

Telmo Moriera, a guest choreographer and dancer from Ballets de San Juan, also performed a piece with PA Ballet soloist Nayara Lopes to the anguished ballade ‘O Gente da Minha Terra.’ The dance was packed with intricate lift patterns and dramatic embraces.  

‘Suspended in Time,’ an excerpt from PA Ballet’s premiere film series last month starred principal dancers, Sterling Baca and Oksana Maslova, smoldering in a pas de deux choreographed by Kirill Radev, set to the music of the 70s rock group ELO.

BalletX presented “New Heights,” choreographed by Amy Hall Garner- a full ensemble piece filmed against abstract murals around town. This high-velocity piece just kept heating up, reflective of the propulsive drive of the music. It gave the BX dancers a chance to lean into its frenetic pace and even catch the jarring energy in the air of our time.  

PAB dancer Marjorie Feiring choreographed a solo to a love ballad by The Zombies which Peter Weil performed on the pier under the Ben Franklin Bridge. Dressed in jeans and bare-chested, Weil’s muscled lyricism and Feiring’s choreographic simplicity made for a classy match.

Philadanco dancers Joe Gonzalez and Rosita Adams convey the complex chemistry in choreographer Christopher Huggins ballet “After the Dawn, a dramatic duet about a couple breaking up after a night of passion.

A video presented by Thom White called BbyGrl featured 20 women dancing in unison on multiple screen insets with dance expressions of strength and unity in memory of women of color lost to gun violence.

A showstopper every year by a different dancer from the company is a revival of Mikhail Fokine’s ‘Dying Swan’, scored to the elegiac music of Camille Saint-Saens. This year it was performed by soloist So Jung Shin, who offered beautiful lines and subtle interpretive pacing, simply hypnotic.

The other emotional highlight was the photo montage of the MANNA crew by photographer Ted Lieverman accompanied by John and Martha harmonizing duet (and full into lyrics) of Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen’s ‘Over the Rainbow.’  The pictures of MANNA volunteers preparing the food, packaging, and conferencing, everyone masked, but their eyes speaking volumes, telling a story about not stopping this vital service no matter what comes.  

Emily Davis closed out the broadcast by thanking “the dancers and choreographers of the Pennsylvania Ballet and all of the other Philadelphia dance companies who donated their time and effort to make this show happen in this virtual format. It is a testament to the resilience of the Philadelphia arts community and its unwavering devotion to this event and MANNA”.

Then the encore number by the co-hosting divas, Jarboe in a blinding tinsel rainbow gown and MGC in a pink cocktail mini & go-go boots ala de la Renta circa 1967, and both were twirling the light fantastic trying to hit those piercing falsetto notes on the Bee Gee song ‘You should be dancing.’ 

MANNA in times of pandemics

“For the first couple of months, with all of the news about a second wave coming…every day, we wondered if we were really going to be able to do what was necessary to keep operations going at the level we needed to.” 

Those words from MANNA CEO Sue Daugherty, in a phone interview last week describing what it was like to keep MANNA’s facility and mission going as the Covid-19 pandemic locked down the city.   

“I hate the term ‘new normal,’ Daugherty said, “but I don’t think we will ever go back to the organization we were before covid. We’ve come to terms with that. Some of that …. there is some good that comes out of challenging times.”

“We have some volunteers who have been coming for 30 years,” Daugherty said, “and their view was ‘This is what MANNA does.’  Our mission was born out of the HIV/AIDS crisis- and here we are again 30 years later with another scary crisis, and we have to rise to the occasion.”

 Within weeks of the city shut down, MANNA increased its services, not only preparing daily meals for people with a debilitating and life-threatening illness and now delivering meals to homebound Covid patients.

At the same time, they worked with a reduced staff of volunteers to maintain Covid safety standards, which included installing an air-filtration system and having an employee sanitize every touchpoint throughout the facility.

Daugherty recalls the organization’s scramble to make sure there would be no interruption of food supplies. Securing enough PPE for the staff, having an air filtration system installed, making sure that everyone could get vaccinated as soon as they were available. “Today, we are more efficient than we’ve ever been. We’re serving more clients than we have in 30 years.”

By every measure, MANNA more than met the Covid crisis, preparing and delivering to their clients a record 1.5 million meals free of charge since the start of the pandemic.

Daugherty also weighed in on the unique collaboration with the dancers of the Pennsylvania Ballet, who presented the 29th annual Shut Up & Dance benefit for MANNA.

MANNA started 30 years ago. For 29 of those years, their mission has inspired the dancers of the PA Ballet and the dance community to raise funds for the organization and be engaged in the volunteer work at the heart of MANNA. This was the first year that the dancers couldn’t be on-site to engage with the volunteers.  

“We definitely missed them being here in the facility,” Daughtery said, “but they had a different set of safety protocols.”   She added, “through video conferencing, in some ways, it’s also been more engaging, and the dancers were even more committed.”

“Shut Up & Dance has always been an amazing, fun night out, as it should be. But we don’t want the advocacy behind the work and the people that make it happen every day to be forgotten.”

Daugherty said that every year, like so many devotees of the benefit performance, reflects on one moment that never fails to stop the show. “When I see Dying Swan performance, I go into …. well, it’s so emotional. And it is the moment when we remember those we lost, to HIV/AIDS and now again with this pandemic.”

SU&Dance Digital benefit performance raised more than $95,000 for MANNA, with donations still coming in. For more information about MANNA’s services go to www.mannapa.org.

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