Carmen de Lavallade. Geoffrey Holder. Pearl Primus. Louis Johnson. These are some of the names that make H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, the title Philadanco artistic director Joan Myers Brown gave the company’s 17th annual December show as the Kimmel Center’s resident dance company. As Brown said in her curtain talk, people under a certain age of any color might not recognize those names.
De Lavallade made headlines in August as one of the 2017 Kennedy Center Honorees who spurned the White House pre-reception earlier this month. To the relief of many, the honors took place without reception or president. (It will be broadcast on CBS December 26, 2017.) Holder, her late husband of 60 years, was mostly known as the voice behind 7-Up’s “uncola” ad campaign, but the Trinidad-born, Tony Award-winning actor and choreographer was also a costume designer, director, dancer, and painter.
De Lavallade performed Holder’s 1972 “The Creation” (he choreographed, wrote the music and lyrics, and designed her costume) to James Weldon Johnson’s genesis poem. De Lavallade’s glorious, willowy height, clad in a blazing crimson gown with sleeves that covered her wrists, exaggerated the elegance of her expressive long hands. At 86, this goddess of dance mostly sat on a bench, at times walking around it as if frail and aged, only to later show her still-marvelous agility. All the while, she recited parts of Johnson’s text.
When she reached “the crown of God’s creation,” her diamond-studded hands formed a tiara on top of her head. The audience that braved the icy conditions to see her were on their feet by the time she walked grandly offstage.
Primus was a black modern-dance choreographer and anthropologist. Choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, a founder of Urban Bush Women, drew her inspiration for “Walking with Pearl…Southern Diaries” (a company premiere) on Primus’s vibrant diaries while researching the south’s 1950s African-American culture.
Former Philadanco star Kim Y. Bears-Bailey restaged Primus’s choreography in a section that used Josh White’s “Hard Times Blues.” She also danced the part of the fanny-shaking go-to-meeting matriarch, and almost brought all the matriarchs in the audience to their feet.
In other sections, the men cantered the stage, circling with arms outstretched above in longing or hope before prostrating themselves. When Sweet Honey in the Rock's voices velvetized the atmosphere with the sorrowful “Strange Fruit,” you couldn’t help but think of the women left behind as their men hung from southern trees.
Myers Brown often gives local and younger artists a stage for their work, and she opened this show with excerpts of choreographer Sonia Dawkins “Pieces of my Heart,” set to poetry by August Wilson and his daughter Azula Wilson. Dawkins painted some memorable choreographic moments, as when Carricia Golden crawled through a man’s legs as if escaping through thick brush. But as excerpts, I couldn’t yet see a through-line. I’m hoping one will be evident when the piece receives a full showing.
Louis Johnson’s “Forces of Rhythm” premiered here in 1976 and Bears-Bailey and Debora Chase-Hicks reconstructed it for the 2017 version. Donald T. Lunsford opened and closed the piece as the Griot. In between came the “Ethnics” with Ankhtra Battle, Elijah Carter, Jameel Hendricks, and Jah’meek D. Williams girded in red loincloths and performing jaw-dropping athletic feats, including Kilimanjaro-high toe-touching splits en l’air.
As ballet dancers en pointe, Janine Beckles, Mikaela Fenton, Marissa Kaufmann, and Dana Nichols, excelled with their partners Kareem Best, William E. Burden, Mikhail Calliste, and Victor Lewis Jr., who lifted and caught them with ease. There was a “modern” section with Onederful Ancrum, Elyse Browning, Carricia Golden and Leah Friedman, and a pas de trois with Rosita Adamo, Lewis, and Williams. As Adamo stooped nearly parallel to the floor, one of the men scooped his hands under her from behind and lifted her aloft -- a feat of strength I've never seen before. Joe Gonzalez had us all shimmying in our seats to Ben E. King’s song “Spanish Harlem.”
“Shout,” Courtney Robinson’s extended, rigorous solo as an exquisitely dressed haughty lady let it all fly in joyous fury before her far-flung hat was returned to her by shy Yoruba girls in white petticoats. The piece shocked and awed me. Once she replaced her hat, she strutted off the stage, composed and stately.