By Walter Rutledge
Philadanco (Philadelphia Dance Company) opened their New York City season on June 12 at the Joyce Theater. The eleven- member ensemble performed four works by choreographers Thang Dao, Christopher L. Huggins, and two former Philadanco Company members Dawn Marie Bazemore and Tommie-Waheed Evans. The well curated program used social injustice as the evening’s theme.
Celebrating 48thyears of performing excellence Philadanco was formed in 1970 by Joan Myers Brown as the natural next step for the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts. The company continues to excite audiences with thought-provoking performances and outstanding performers, while showcasing works by emerging and established choreographers. The Joyce performances marks Philadanco’s returns to the theater after a six-year hiatus.
Folded Prism by Thang Dao opened the evening with an ensemble work for nine dancers, who were placed upstage right with their backs to the audience. With a collective breath Dao immediately established a sense of community. These dancers were kindred spirits moving with a collective purpose.
Bodies effortless exploded skyward, then cascaded down; enveloped into a chasm surrounded by bodies. The use of level reinforced his multiple sculptural motifs that distinguished the work and again strengthened the overall compositional structure. A major component was a series of duets; each developed his theme with seamless movement and arresting visual imagery.
The one exception was a male duet, which was accompanied by a more percussive passage by composer John Lewis. William Burden and Joe Gonzalez (who is svelte this season- congrats) performed with a healthy dose of testosterone, offset by focused intensity. This produced an athletic encounter thankfully void of aggression and overt competition. All of the duets possessed an appealing mix of abandon and controlled order. The work ended with the dancer returning to their upstage community, thus providing a satisfying and holistic resolution.
New Fruit by resident choreographer Christopher Huggins explores racial injustice and intolerance in past and present America. The opening movement, a solo, performed by William E. Burden captured the searing message in Nina Simone’s haunting rendition of Abel Meeropol’s1934 protest song Strange Fruit. This section made the most visceral statement, and set the tone for the entire work.
Burden delivered an emotional and poignant, yet restrained performance; which revealed quiet strength amidst of an unspeakable atrocity. He performed the virtuoso choreography with both technical proficiency and emotional clarity. This allowed the audience to concentrate on the artistic intent of the choreographer.
Looking For Something, the second section was in sharp contrast to the opening. Here, hip hop music, movement, and a street vernacular gait helped to define the work’s urban landscape. Victor Lewis and Jameel Malik Hendricks lead the company in an up-tempo movement manifesto. The uptown style swagger proved to be a façade, and underneath the bravado was a feeling of longing.
Throughout the work Huggins depicted America’s racial dark side. These injustices were expressed through the movement not acting, which made the choreography the predominate storytelling element. This also reserved the emotional element as an embellishment, and not the dramatic impetus.
Five male bodies standing in silhouette against a crimson red backdrop was the opening tableau in A Movement For Five by Dawn Marie Bazemore. The foreboding quality within this opening image, followed by Public Enemy’s Fight The Power seemed to foreshadow the injustice that would be revealed shortly. Bazemore chronicled of the events surrounding the 1989 conviction and incarceration of five African-American teenagers, who came to be known as the Central Park Five.
This thoughtful and well crafted work was the evening’s true highlight. Set in three movements; which provided an opening statement, conflict and a final resolution. But it is in the totality of the composition that the power of the Bazemore endeavor is truly revealed.
Imagery that seemed ripped from the headlines permeated the work. Five black men lying in a diagonal shaft of light with their hands clasped behind their backs, in what can only be described as every Black parent’s nightmare. In another moment the five young men sequestered in a single down spot of light captured their isolation and helplessness.
Bazemore’s artistic clarity was complemented by courageous moments of stillness, pedestrian transitions and sparse but meaningful gestures. These design elements enhanced the emotional tension and storyline in this powerful abstract narrative work. This was most evident in the final moments of the third section Exoneration when the five men are reunited with loved ones. As the cast begin to exit downstage right in a single shaft of clear light Gonzalez stumbles and falls. Burden helps him to stand and assists him to walk into the light. Bazemore’s final images left us with the message of camaraderie and compassion.
Philadanco alumni Tommie-Waheed Evans’ With (in) Verse, an ensemble work for eight dancers closed the program. The program notes described the work as “This does not seek to be gospel as in celebration nor as evangelism. This is gospel as desperation …” To Evan’s credit his declaration of desperation was more subliminal than overt.
Evan quickly established a vocabulary based on a blend of contemporary modern dance styles and earthbound/grounded movement. At times it has a tribal/ethnic aura and at times reminisced fragments of West African dance. Aided by the percussive score by Jon Baldwin, and spot on lighting by Clifton Taylor the work had an undeniable kinesthetic power. One of the most powerful visual moments involved a red wash in the bare brick wall behind the cyclorama. The effect produced a stark and austere contrast to the darker more enveloping cocoon effect of the prior section.
Towards the middle of the work the score switched to a softer quality and a slower largo. The dancers wandered the stage looking upward as if in the calm at the center of cyclone. Then the original music theme returned, and the dancers resumed Evan’s previous movement. The work culminated with a communal flurry of movement upstage right.
Philadanco returns to the Joyce Theater with an exciting and provocative program. Brown has constructed a daring evening using dance as a weapon for social change. You have three more opportunities to experience the company; Saturday 3pm and 8pm and Sunday at 2pm. For tickets and more information visits joyce.org.