It was one of the year’s dance moments in Philadelphia when Joan Myers Brown gave a heartfelt shoutout to the 75 Philadanco on the December 10 opening night performance of ‘Fast Forward…To the Future’ in the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater. They came from all over the country to be there to celebrate JB’s 90th birthday.
The program was conceived by Brown in the fall of 2019, with choreographers Thang Doa, Ray Mercer, and Katherine Smith setting premieres for their first program marking the company’s 50th Anniversary year of special tour dates and many celebratory events culminating in a gala in Philadelphia in the fall of 2020. None of that was meant to be as the world went into lockdown over the Covid pandemic
Fast forward to this month, Myers said that to pick up where they left off for these performances, the choreographers and dancers had to rely on virtual rehearsal and brief sessions right before the run. Something you wouldn’t have guessed on opening night, as evinced by the precision and attack by the dancers for this program, the company was back in fine form.
The first moments with the dancers Tan Doa’s ‘Roked’ had a cathartic visual impact that spelled Philadanco returned to their home stage and ready for a new era after a perilous time. The company costumed in blue, green, purple jackets, under blue-noir light moving in tight formation. Roked is a Hebrew word that means dancing in ‘masculine form,’ but in this piece, the dancers “strip away the patriarchy as they find their own personal freedom.’ Doa’s choreography expresses personal freedom and fulfillment.
Victor Lewis Jr. is the first to peel away from the clockwork formations in a dramatic free dance. Then, as Doa’s choreographic matrix keeps evolving, other dancers break away for their liberated solos and dramatic duets. The jackets are shed for these dances, and all the dancers throw them in the air by the end. Doa dedicated this ballet to legendary Philadanco/Ailey dancer/choreographer Debra Chase-Hicks, who died earlier this year.
Broadway veteran choreographer Ray Mercer’s ‘This Place’ set to a driving percussive sound field by Bongi Duma for the full company. Set to the smoldering percussive soundscape of Bongi Duma, Mercer’s sculpted body groupings and lift patterns are laced with balletic acrobatics. Mercer’s sculpted bodyscapes look classical and further enhanced by Natasha Guruleva’s minimal costumes on the dancers. The dancers reappeared for the finale in full-length black skirts with red underling- swirling around their bodies, for Mercer’s dance crescendo par excellence.
After an intermission, PA Senator Vincent Hughes presented a citation to Film Director Lee Daniels, an alum of Philadanco’s school and a major financial supporter of the company. Daniels couldn’t attend the opening night concert due to illness, but he sent a text from the West Coast to popular Philly DJ Lady B (aka Wendy Clark) that said, “Joan introduced me, and so many others, to the arts. I owe her my entire career.”
More laudatory words came from Councilwoman Blondel Reynolds Brown, Lee Daniels’ mother Clara, and Senator Hughes, who Myers cued to wind it up. The dancers were ready to go on for the second half of an already powerhouse program, which would be capped off with choreographer Anthony Burrell’s explosive work ‘Conglomerate.’
Katherine J. Smith’s ‘Hidden Jewels’ is set to music by composer Ezio Bosso. danced by Janine Beckles, Mikaela Fenton, Clarricia Golden, Brandi Pinnix, and Courtney Robinson- a meditative dance that unfolds with standard lyrical dance phrases but then choreographically reflects Smith’s central theme “Women’s interconnected stories of pain, struggle, and resilience.” Janine Beckles’ artistry and expression proved captivating throughout this performance.
Anthony Burrell’s Conglomerate, first performed in 2018, already has all the imprimatur of being a ‘Danco signature ballet. The full company poses in silhouette as the club groove music by Darryl J. Hoffman, with the dancers’ in a line in roiling with micro- rhythmic moves before flying into a propulsive mix of dance idioms, from rapturous Africanist footwork to balletic tours l’air, sensual duets, virtuosic solos and a dance challenge between the men and women.
Burrell has created dances with singer Beyonce and other pop superstars and knows how to create dazzlingly popular choreography. There are moments of that in Conglomerate, but Burrell taps something deeper that is altogether illustrative of Philadanco’s technical artistry and indelible ensemble energy.
It was a triumphal program by Philadanco that drew almost full houses for two of the four performances, as the company is about to head on tour early next year. They are also preparing for a series of performances next month in collaboration with the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
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