Philadanco celebrates self-expression in return to Kimmel Campus

Philadanco delivered a brilliant run of concerts at the Perelman Theater over the past weekend (April 22-24). Before the curtain rose on Sunday, Joan Myers Brown, the company’s founder (who has recently semi-retired and moved into the role of Artistic Advisor), enthused that the company was as happy to return to performing live in their home venue as the audience was to be there in person. Indeed, the series marked a triumphant moment in Philadelphia’s renewed cultural life, with Philadanco celebrating its 20th year as a resident company of The Kimmel Cultural Campus by reviving four superb dance works drawn from its repertory.

Two of the works, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s The Walkin’, Talkin’, Signifying Blues Hips, Sacred Hips, Lowdown, Throwdown (1995), and Rennie Harris’ Wake Up (2012) showcased dance styles that evolved organically — traditional Jamaican dance in The Walkin’, Talkin’ and African American/Latino Hip Hop dance in Wake Up. Although both styles have become huge international phenomena, they weren’t created for their commercial appeal. Rather, the dance forms emerged spontaneously from specific communities — and Philadanco’s wonderful dancers infused them here with self-expressive life.

The Walkin’, Talkin’ kicked off with “Battymoves,” a solo danced by Kaylah Arielle. The program notes explained that “Batty” comes from the Jamaican slang for “Butt” — a fact made clear by an “X” marked on the rear of Arielle’s short orange skirt. Engaging in a playful dialogue with the music (composed by Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn), Arielle flexed a foot or lifted a shoulder in counterpoint to the percussive score, before breaking loose with joyous hips to a swinging beat.

In the next section, “Soon Come,” four women (Leslie Bunkley, Mikaela Fenton, Brandi Pinnix, and Brittany Wright) progressed unhurriedly on a diagonal — not actually coming anywhere soon. Wrapped in colorful batik fabrics, they circled their hips and undulated their torsos languidly, sensuously absorbed in their own bodies.

For the final section, “Up In Here,” the cast was rounded out by Janine Beckles and Clarricia Golden. The seven women lined up with their backs to the audience, playfully shouting out and egging each other on. At one point, Myers Brown strode on stage, shook her finger at them, and then contributed a few spry moves of her own. The group’s camaraderie was infectious, and even when performing the same movement, each of the women exhibited her own style.

Harris’ Wake Up opened with the voice of Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his “Black and Beautiful” speech. The dancers, clad in sneakers and 60s-era street clothes, moved in slow motion to King’s words: “Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.” Suddenly, a gunshot rang out, and one of the dancers, Lamar Baylor, fell to the ground, choking and gasping for breath. The all-too-real moment was harrowing, yet King’s words continued to urge, “Don’t let anybody take your manhood. Be proud of our heritage.”

In a dream-like state, Baylor arose from the ground and began dancing. The others joined in — their resiliency a declaration of self-worth. Wake Up expanded into a celebration of dazzling, rhythmic footwork. The music (composed by Darrin Ross) built to an ecstatic height — and then the soundtrack suddenly cut out. Tragic reality returned, and Baylor once again fell to the floor, sputtering and struggling to breathe. Wake Up delivered a gut punch, revealing a world of devastation and a world of beauty existing side by side.

A pair of tour de force modern dance pieces rounded out the program. Ray Mercer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (2011) generated exciting bursts of physical danger, exemplified by the women jumping off a high table into the arms of the men below. Ulysses Dove’s  Bad Blood (2014) similarly featured daring acrobatics; the dancers repeatedly threw themselves off-balance only to snatch back control at the last second. Set to music by Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel, the choreography and lyrics overlapped intriguingly, illustrating the speculative notion that a person might be “falling and walking at the same time.”

Bravo to all of the program’s versatile dancers, who also included Jameel Hendricks, Victor Lewis Jr., Floyd McLean Jr., Lamar Rogers, Adryan Moorefield, and Courtney Robinson.

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