In the early 90s, Pennsylvania Ballet members Michael Sheridan, Nick Stuccio, Leslie Carothers, and Kelly Moriarty co-founded Shut-Up & Dance, a benefit performance to raise money for MANNA. This organization prepared and delivered meals to people with HIV/AIDS in the Philadelphia Metropolitan Area. The show was staged on a frigid winter night at the old burlesque palace, The Trocadero, on 9th & Arch St., where the heater was busted, the water pipes had frozen, but fortunately, the bar was still serving. The show was a smash, and the performance raised $1,200.
After that legendary night, performances occurred at a variety of locales. Since the late 90s, it has become an annual gala event at the historic Forrest Theater in Center City, raising upwards of $150.000 for MANNA. With the Covid pandemic, the last two years were live-streamed. Now, at last, the benefit performance returns to stage, but MANNA has announced that April 30 will be the last in the Forrest Theater.
MANNA Executive Director Sue Daugherty spoke about the decision in an interview at MANNA’s Headquarters last week. “We had been talking about it for many years,” Daugherty explained, “The cost every year has increased. The financial model wasn’t making sense any longer. So, we’re excited to create something new and continue this partnership with the Philadelphia Ballet. We decided to continue our partnership with the Philadelphia Ballet but to do it differently going forward.”
Daugherty quoted Sheridan when they discussed changing the benefit “Michael said it best, ‘when we started the show, we didn’t know if it would last more than that year. Now it’s 30 years later. That’s an incredible run.”
For the dancers, working with MANNA has become more than doing a show where they could present their choreographies and strut their stuff outside of the Philadelphia Ballet repertory. They also took on MANNA’s mission by volunteering at MANNA’s kitchens in the weeks leading up to the performance.
For a new generation of dance artists, it continued to be an inspiring collaborative experience and vital connection to the arts and community outreach for a good cause. Daugherty assured us that MANNA will not be “ending our relationship with the Philadelphia Ballet, and we’re excited to see what we reinvent to continue the partnership.”
It has been a challenging time for MANNA since the Covid pandemic changed every aspect of life worldwide.
The organization started at the HIV/AIDS epidemic height, preparing and delivering meals to people dying of AIDS in Metropolitan Philadelphia from a church basement and eventually out of a converted warehouse dock opposite the Philadelphia Police armory on 23rd St.
When breakthrough medications for HIV/AIDS were developed and available in the 90s, the organization expanded its reach to patients living with life-threatening diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases. MANNA’s staff of nutritionists design menus aligned with the specific health needs of their clients.
They moved to a new facility, The Steven Korman Nutrition Center in Fairmount, twice the size of their previous facility. Their services continued to expand along with a committed staff of volunteers who prepare packages and deliver meals 365 days a year.
When the Covid pandemic hit in 2020, the whole city was in lockdown.
MANNA’s client base had “increased by about 40 percent,” Daugherty said. Meanwhile, their all-volunteer staff decreased in the first months because of the crisis, social distancing and other protocols had to be maintained. Many of their drivers were seniors and were advised by their doctors not to volunteer. MANNA’s administrative and office staff was committed to working on the line, preparing meals, and driving the trucks.
“When there were delays in having the staff get vaccinations in Philly,” Daugherty recalled,” we drove to a hospital in Bethlehem, PA to get them as soon as we could.”
Daugherty acknowledged that she felt overwhelmed by the unknowable factors of Covid transmission during the first weeks of the outbreak in and tried to determine the possible risks for the MANNA staff. “Some of the volunteers who have worked here since the beginning said that HIV/AIDS was scary too, but this is what we do, MANNA rose to the occasion then, and we had to continue no matter what.”
The effects of the pandemic continued to be felt. “Our food vendors are telling us to add another 5 to 10 percent…conservatively, so just with that amount of cost increase, that’s a ½ million dollars added to our budget for next year,” Daugherty noted. The other factor she stresses is that “We can’t just substitute foods. Our menu goes through an intense nutritional analysis. We have 12 different diet modifications, and factor in that many of our clients are battling multiple health issues.”
The Swan's last dance, for now
Daugherty said that MANNA wants to honor the legacy of Shut Up & Dance and “all those we lost to HIV/AIDS,” adding, “and we want to go out with a bang.”
For the final performance, there will be several tributes to the founding members of SU&Dance. Performed by the current roster of Philadelphia Ballet dancers, they will be joined by many returning troupes and performers, including BalletX, BrianSanders JUNK, UArts dance students, Gunnar Montana, and cabaret star John Jarboe.
And, of course, there is the always opening number which is shrouded in secrecy until the curtain goes up at the Forrest. How SU&Dance can top themselves this year after so many fabulous showstoppers is anybody’s guess.
Everyone has favorite performance memories from the show. For Daugherty, it is the one constant performance of choreographer Mikhail Fokine’s solo ‘Dying Swan’ scored to Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals and danced by Prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. Philadelphia Ballet ballerinas and danseurs have performed it in various classical and modern interpretations. Daugherty said, “No matter who dances the Dying Swan, it gets to me every time. It honors our roots, and it’s a moment of reflection of all those we lost from HIV/AIDS.” Many audiences of the show over the years would wholeheartedly agree.
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