By Walter Rutledge
The Philadelphia Dance Company, better known by its sobriquet Philadanco, is having a stellar New York City season at the Joyce Theater. The all-to-short four-day five performance series will conclude to today Saturday, February 10 with two performances: a 2pm family matinee and an 8pm finale. The season has successfully highlighted the works of four emerging choreographers Tommie-Waheed Evans, Nijawwon Matthews, Ray Mercer and Chris Rudd: thus, continuing the company’s role in perpetuating the Black dance tradition.
The importance of a good opener is that it sets the pace for the rest of the evening. The opening number pulls in the audience, satisfying that initial rush of first curtain anticipation. From Dystopia to Our Declaration by Nijawwon Matthews was an ideal first glimpse at the proficiency and prowess of the Philadelphia Dance Company.
After a brief encounter with a heavily shadowed solo male performer in a circle of light downstage right, the stage is magically filled with a full ensemble of performers seated on the floor. The group moved in a collective breath with their upper bodies falling and rising. The eb and flow of the dancer’s bodies evolved from stillness to unison and then into small groups moving in counterpoint to each other.
Matthews established a signature movement vocabulary immediately, which was (for the most part) void of the contemporary dance staples such as balletic pirouettes, multiple attitude turns, and cirque style extensions. The very grounded, at times earthbound movement was more primal than primitive producing its own universal ethnicity. The choreography and musical score by Dave August built From Dystopia to Our Declaration to a powerful crescendo ending. This well-structured work had enough energy to also function as a closer.
Chris Rudd presented Mating Season, a sextet that played on one of his choreographic strengths- the art of partnering. The ensemble fluctuated between group passages and duets/pas de deux movements. Rudd created a coherent yet abstract work that presented a nontraditional approach to “dances for two”. At times the encounters blurred the lines between established roles to create a sensual synergy of dancers simply moving in space.
The most riveting work on the program was Balance of Power by Ray Mercer. Composer Bangi Duma’s very dramatic score was the perfect backdrop for this highly theatrical work. The jacket dance section(s) were the most effective conveying a subtle sense of humor accompanied by strong clean imagery and spot on theatricality.
Floyd McLean Jr. was given an opportunity to shine, and he literally glowed. His clean and technically articulate attack was just the right amount of spice for this “hot dish” of a ballet. My only suggestion would be when using blackouts between sections try shortening the time the audience is in the dark, this will protect the works all important pacing.
The evening ended on a high, but bittersweet note with Tommie- Waheed Evans ensemble work Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth. The work was a tribute to Debora Chase a former student then soloist who left the company to join the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1981. After her 11-year tenure with Ailey, Chase returned to her beloved Philadanco and became the rehearsal director and coach. She unfortunately passed away after a short illness in 2021.
A gentle and giving person, Chase had a positive impact on the dancers including former company member, now choreographer, Evans. The work was a world wind of dance styles with varied temperaments. Allowing this dancing testament to fully exploit the “Philadanco style” consisting of strong technical prowess coupled with a powerful dramatic core. And as always, the “Danco Dolls” did their utmost to leave an audience wanting more.
In a prior conversation Evans had commented on the dance’s scenario. The earthbound dancers are moving while trying to seek guidance from a heavenly Chase. And as the dance evolves the dancers move with an increasing fervor and passion. In the final movement the music changes and the tempo increased to about 120+ bpm (beats per minute). This is a strong dance tempo, which brought the work and the evening to a rousing finale.
Cudos to Founder and present Artistic Advisor Joan Myers Brown for curating a well-balanced evening of modern dance by four up and coming African American choreographers. (Brown still has at least one more season to curate so get ready for 2025.) This has also been part of the Philadanco legacy for almost 45 years to nurture and develop the next generation of artists. And whether a student becomes a performer is immaterial the experience helps to build self-reliant and socially contributing citizens.
Brown matter of factly reminds us Philadanco brought renowned choreographer Ronald K. Brown’s work to the Joyce first. In fact, his groundbreaking ballet for Philadanco, Gatekeeper “graced” the Philadanco stage before he became a mainstay in the Ailey repertoire and at the Joyce. Just one of so many artists who established a “firming footing” through Philadanco.
If you haven’t seen this modern dance powerhouse yet you have two opportunities today. For more information and to purchase the few remaining tickets visit https://www.joyce.org/performances/55//philadanco