By Walter Rutledge
Philadanco (The Philadelphia Dance Company) performed three sold out performances Friday April 20 through Sunday April 22 at the Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.
The concerts were part of the tenth anniversary celebration of the center’s opening and were entitled The Philadelphia Connection. The series showcased artists and arts organizations that have made significant contributions to the cultural landscape of the city of Philadelphia.
For over forty-three years Philadanco has enriched the lives of countless aspiring young dancers, and choreographers. The company has cultivated civic pride in the under-served African American community; and built a broader appreciation for the contributions by artists of color. For these performances Founder and Executive Director Joan Myers Brown selected a varied and eclectic program.
The program opened with Ronald K. Brown’s Gatekeepers (1999). The work symbolizes the dancers as soldiers walking towards heaven; searching for the wounded, while providing a safe haven for others to follow. To Brown’s credit Gatekeeper has retained a freshness and vitality. It is also a barometer that defined an emerging dancer makers’ eventual distinct and individual signature style.
One of the questions I personally toil with is “How soulful will heaven be?” I’m in no rush to find out, but the thought of an eternity without good potato salad or hot sauce is daunting. If Gatekeeper is any indication of what heaven is like, then I have nothing to worry about.
Brown has constructed a high energy and dynamically soulful work for seven dancers. The cast lead by Tommie-Waheed Evans included six women; Heather Benson, Elyse Browning, Chloe O. Davis, Lindsey Holmes, Alicia Lundgren and Roxanne Lyst, all were both ethnic and ethereal. The work had a dreamlike quality that contained organic movement that never betrayed the body’s center as the energy source.
This was balanced against explosive jumps, turns, extended lines and kicks. The movement patterns and use of developed themes created a thematic build. This is the kind of thoughtfulness and inventiveness that has been lacking in some of his recent works. The public is waiting for Brown to rekindle the type of fire found in Gatekeeper.
Tribute choreographed by Complexion Contemporary Ballet Co-Artistic Director Dwight Roden was as Philly as a cheese steak hoagie! The ballet was set to the music of the songwriting duo Gamble and Huff, who revolutionized music and created what the world would later call “The Philadelphia Sound”. The work opened with a musical and movement prelude.
At first both movement and music established a false sense of serious and cerebral contemporary dance and sound. Dancers flawlessly executed a series of well-partnered lifts, which circled the staged with the control and reserve of a Viennese ball. Then the familiar sound of the group MFBS filled the theater and the choreography responded with an exuberance and economy that can only be described as Philly cool. Coy gestures were offset by lightning jumps and intricate lifts.
This work originally premiered on Phildanco in 2000 just six years after Roden founded his own company. Similar to the work of Ronald K. Brown, we can also see many elements of what would become Roden’s signature style. These were best seen in his linear use of patterns that grouped dancers by gender in lines across the stage. Movement set in cannons that revert to unison passages that displayed his musicality.
The Adagio section was solidly constructed; it introduced couples in different trysts. Each was varied in emotional temperament yet all were sensual and visually stimulating. The work also introduced period dances such as the Hustle and the Two Step. The works concise and consistent feel can be credited to deliberate editing. This version of Tribute told a complete story without becoming choreographically verbose or long-winded.
Gene Hill Sagan’s septet Suite en Bleu followed. Sagan was the Choreographer-in- Residence for Philadanco for fifteen years (1976- 1991). During that time he set twelve works on the company. His contributions have left an indelible mark on Philadanco, which can still be seen today. Philadanco remains the only company in the United States to have access to such a large number of his works.
If the two preceding works are described as soulful in contrast Suite en Bleu is simply joyous. There is a boundless use of the stage and a freedom in the groupings and patterns. At times he arrests the movement of one set of dancers creating a sculptural tableau while another group or individual moves unencumbered and expansively around the stage.
Set to the music of Handel and Bach the work is a celebration and speaks to the audience with a clear and articulate movement dialogue. Sagan was in total control of his environment pitting dancers against the music in multiple counterpoint phases simultaneously. The approach was very successful; creating a moving orchestra that neither competes with nor merely follows the music.
The use of seven bodies on stage also gave Sagan the ability to create symmetry and visual harmony, while at times manipulating odd configurations that are geometrically interesting. One passage that was extremely effective was when he moved five dancers downstage on the stage left diagonal when two others moved upstage on the opposing stage right diagonal. The larger group froze mid stage, while the two other dancers continued to move.
Joan Kilgore embodied the movement, becoming part of the musical and movement composition. Her statuesque beauty was balance by her graceful yet approachable stage demeanor. But it was Sagan’s strong and almost magisterial command of the choreographic structure that was the true star of the work.
The program closed with the world premiere of Wake Up by Philadelphia native Rennie Harris. Harris has been described as a Hip Hop choreographer. This is a misnomer. Although he uses a vocabulary based on the movement genre the underlying compositional structure follows classic dance cannons.
Wake Up is set to the music and words of Nigerian born Afrobeat music pioneer and human rights activist Fela Kuti. Harris retains one of the original elements of both Hip Hop, and of Fela’s music and politically charged statements; that is the ability to create social discourse through art. Wake Up captures the message of this political maverick and uses it as a call for awareness in our present day lives.
Set as a period work, the male dancers are clad in snap front caps, fedoras and women wear Afros and mid-drift blouses reminiscing Fela’s circa 1970’s Nigeria. The movement however exemplifies that universality of Hip Hop. Harris has a way of creating multiple movement scenarios that merge into a cohesive dance canvas.
Lamar Baylor was the center figure of the work. Baylor’s indomitable stage persona was perfectly suited for the role, which was relentless and charming without pandering. He was able to draw us in as oppose to merely dazzle. And the trio of Heather Benson, Chloe Davis, and Lindsay Holmes were the works powerhouse dancing divas.
If you have never seen Philadanco on their home turf of Philadelphia it is well worth the short excursion down to the “City of Brotherly Love”. The Perelman Theatre with its stately but understated grandeur was the ideal setting. The overall production value of the concert is also noteworthy.
One element that was extremely pleasing was the lighting. It was theatrical but remained a supportive and enhancing element. It was not overpowering or murky, and did not obscure the movement, or the performers faces; which isn’t always the case in the present overly commercialized concert dance environment.
In Photo: 1) Company 2) Joan Myers Brown 3) Joan Kilgore 4) Tommie Waheed Evans
Lois Greenfield photographer, Alfred Turner Jr. Graphics