Eleone Dance Theatre’s Tenth Anniversary

No casual modern-dance milestone
 
LEWIS WHITTINGTON
 
    Eleone Dance Theatre’s ten-year anniversary concert, “Jumping to Higher Heights,” wasn’t just a casual milestone. The modern dance troupe survived a devastating setback in 1998 when its founder and artistic director, E. Leon Evans II, died. Shawn-Lamere Williams and Sheila A. Ward, two of Evans’s original dancers, reluctantly took the reins as co-directors.
 
    Coming off the first tour in their history, the Eleone troupe returned to Philadelphia and the John Allen Theatre with an evening-length concert that that was all over the modern choreographic modern map, displaying their strengths in many dance disciplines. In tandem with past company members, apprentices and dancers from their student company (Eleone Connection), the Eleone troupe tore the house down more than once.
 
    “Oluwa” is a signature piece by Evans that establishes the company’s core artistic expressionism. The work, scored to Quincy Jones’s music from Roots, celebrates African-American heritage.  Despite static dancing in this performance, this work is unmistakably an Eleone classic because it expresses their mixed-discipline style of modern and cultural dance idioms.

    “Bitter Sweet Memories,” by Eric Bean, Jr., is a relationship ballet for three couples set to rhythm-and-blues diva ballads by Jill Scott, Mariah Carey and Vivian Green, all filled with complicated relationship angst. Dancing his own steps, Bean went into mach speed jumps and turns with breakneck abandon and thrilling technique.
 
    Molly Misgalla, a dance instructor at the University of the Arts, made a ballet, “For Always and For Ever Luther,” as in the late great R & B singer Luther Vandross. The song suite was marred by a jumpy track mix and tepid literal movement interpretations of the material. But Misgalla turned the juice on with the tight rhythm line of the Vandross classic “Never Too Much,” with its pulsating guitar hook. The men and women faced off in pulsing unison lines, rhythmically (and romantically) nudging each other back and forth. Vandross’s rendition of “A House is Not a Home” was equally effective, transformed into a torch song for both sexes.
 
    Eleone Connection’s 14 students and apprentices performed Wayne St. David’s “I’m Given Away” in cutaway red-velvet shredded togs. This was rigorous and raw dancing under driving techno-music, sort of a flashdash version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The convoluted imagery eventually framed all that energy into crisp unison work and dramatic breakout solos. Mark Caserta and his incredible leg-to-ear hyperextensions led the cast.
 
    The evening’s most demanding work was Dara Stevens’s docu-dance about South African “Apartheid: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow?” Stevens’s authentic reconstruction of South African cultural dance to tell the stories of oppression, violence and liberation is engrossing dance theater. Through dance and pantomime, LaCeda Nelson movingly played the sister of a man incarcerated for trying to live free in his own country.
 
    Williams, demonstrated his choreographic skills in the full company ballet “Sweet as the Morning’s Flow,” which was a highlight at last year’s “African Threads”-themed DanceBoom! Festival at the Wilma Theater. Principal dancer Joe Rivera executed flawless grand pirouettes that punctuated intricate dance patterns that kept evolving to the vocal invocations of Bobby McFerrin. Williams tampered successfully with this great repertory work by adding a joyous salsa line to a calypso version of Shirley Horn’s “Paradise.”
 
    Stevens’s “Ordinary People,” by John Legend, was a duet about guys and their loves, danced with narrative clarity by apprentices Caserta and Matt Thomas. Williams made a final official appearance as a dancer with his company in his work “We Give Thanks,” scored to soaring gospel music by Richard Smallwood and New Vision. The men dressed in flowing white pants and the women in white dance gowns moved in spiritual processionals (in homage to Alvin Ailey) and elegiac groupings; then the dancers flew into no less than imbued spiritual movement.

 

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