Philadanco’s Spring Dance in full Bloom

Last weekend was abloom with spring dances with The Paul Taylor Dance Company at Penn Live Arts (also reviewed here) and Philly’s own Philadanco at the Kimmel Center, presenting concerts bursting with some of the most dynamic performances of this season.

At the Sunday, April 24 matinee performance in the Perelman Theater, Philadanco’s artistic director, Kim Bears-Bailey, introduced “Moving… Beyond Forward” to a sold-out audience in the Kimmel’s Perelman Theater, their home venue for 23 years. The program featured choreographers who have over the years created some of the company’s signature repertory are Milton Myers, Ray Mercer, Rennie Harris, and Tommie-Waheed Evans.

In opening remarks, Bears-Bailey paid tribute to company founder/Artistic Advisor Joan Myers Brown and announced that Evans’ premiere “Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth” was dedicated to and in memory of former Danco dancer and rehearsal director Debora Chase-Hicks who died in 2021.

The curtain came up on a single spotlight on a circle of men holding Mikaela Fenton over them and suddenly letting go. She drops, and the lights come up on Ray Mercer’s premiere of “Balance of Power,” scored to original music by South African composer Bongi Duma in rhythmic soundfield and sonic acapella vocalese- sometimes whispery, sometimes sonic. In a program note, Mercer, the company’s current resident choreographer, described the ballet as a fast-moving non-narrative ‘Dance for Dance Sake,’ and this piece taps into Philadanco’s esprit de corps with in a fast-moving series of duets with five lift sequences, air-slicing jetes, and acrobatic balletics.

A surprise moment when, the men in dark suits with purple lining peeking out, and in a flash the women are magically sporting their jackets. In a central pas de deux, Fenton and William Burden, Jr., burn up both the floor and the air with their chemistry and precision.

Next was the revival of Milton Myers’ riveting ballet, ‘A Rite of Passage’ and ‘The Element in Which It Takes Place’ – which premiered in 1987 scored to music by Meredith Monk and Philip Glass. It opens with seven women moving over the stage in a processional of arabesque variations and adagio ensemble phrases that create a ceremonial entrance of men dressed in beaded loin cloths, presenting themselves as potential partners.

With evocations of communal rituals, it is a dance dialogue of the sexes, with emblematic costumes designed by Natasha Guruleva and Kim Bears-Bailey. The episodic ballet is part mating dances and warrior bravura choreography. The fusion of African dance classicism and ballet elements is inspired choreographic territory in Myers’ hands.

He builds intriguing theatrical arcs (and gorgeous stage pictures); each dancer is expressing a character, the subtleties engaging the full cast. The newer ‘Danco dancers impressively hold their own next to the outstanding company veterans Janine Beckles and Victor Lewis, Jr., Brena K. Thomas, and Mkial Gilbert, dancing mesmerized in a central duet featuring dazzling lifts and fearless leaps, prompting lusty applause.

Rennie Harris’ F-E-A-R (company premiere, 2019) opened the second half of the program with an ensemble of eight women dancers moving slowly around the stage with expressions of fear and the only clue is smoke seeping onstage and a soundfield of heavy heartbeats. Then the scenario shifts. In a program note, Harris explains that the title is an acronym for ‘False-Events-Appearing-Real’, and that our perceptions of Hip-Hop dance are often seen through what Harris cites as “a western lens,” without doubt an inescapable truth.

After that enigmatic opening, the rhythms from the Cinematic Orchestra ignite this dance and Harris’ quicksilver hip-hop unison lines kick in – analysis goes out the window. It is Harris at his breeziest, intricate footwork, and the ensemble’s entrancing drive. Harris mixes it up with witty variations and breakout solos as The Cinematic Orchestra switches with a fuselage of blazing jazz horns. As Harris mixes the choreo up with a stream of intricate variations that keep the evolving.

The closing ballet was Tommie-Waheed Evans, who has been creating new ballets on many companies, and “Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth” stands as one of his best. A former Danco dancer, he also knows how to ignite the company’s full power. Evans credits his 13 dancers as choreographic collaborators in a high-energy, poetic dance dream of community and unity.

The stage composition is excellent, particularly thrilling in the quick-tempo ensemble precision and solo virtuosity. The dancers in multihued iridescent unitards by Anna Alyssa Belous, in tandem with Nick Kolin’s lighting design, accentuate the dancers’ cyclonic turn sequences that lock into flash duets, trios, and quartets. Evans’ soundtrack is a potent mix of contemporary music from beloved Philadelphia singer Phyllis Hyman to The Chicago Experience and the pumping house down tracks by Enoo Napa.

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