The winter holidays offer the promise of warmth and togetherness, but Christmas also can be a difficult time of year. PHILADANCO’s Xmas Philes celebrates the best of the season without turning away from the challenges to good cheer in a charming holiday performance full of humor, hope, good music, and great dancing.
The prelude captured the spirit of Xmas Philes—commissioned by the Annenberg Center and NextMove in 2000 and updated for 2019—with an elegant dance performed to “Auld Lang Syne.” Clifton Taylor’s lighting design turned the full company into silhouettes against a colored screen. The piece culminated in dancers forming their bodies into letters which spelled out Xmas Philes, a clever, fun, and fitting way to open the program.
Wish lists and homelessness
Next, Tony Harris, Jr. performed a solo in which he portrayed someone trying to get into the holiday spirit, with mixed results. Clad in a coat, Harris rose from his bench and tried to smile and tap to “White Christmas,” but he could only dance a few steps. Defeated, he returned to the bench, where he lay down and covered himself in a blanket, a familiar image in Center City this time of year, where shoppers and revelers share the streets with people experiencing poverty and homelessness.
Seven female dancers lightened the mood as they pranced onstage dressed as sexy reindeer in heels and hot pants. A comic interlude followed in which Nasir Pittman and Kareem Marsh, in candy cane-striped pajamas, portrayed youthful excitement about the upcoming holiday. Pittman and Marsh entered through the audience, calling out items on their wish lists (including an iPhone 11). They hopped onto the stage for a lighthearted dance full of leaps and gravity-defying backbends inspired by ballet, breakdance, and other forms of movement.
“Blue,” “Druids,” and “New Year’s Eve”
Xmas Philes alternated between humor and pathos, both heartwarming in different ways. “Blue” was a reminder that some are sad and lonely at Christmas, while “New Year’s Eve” portrayed a woman (dancer Rosita Adamo) longing for someone with whom to ring in the holiday. And at the conclusion of the first act, “Jingle Bells” undercut seasonal festivities with the reality that incarceration separates many Americans from loved ones. The company wore black and orange coveralls reminiscent of prison jumpsuits, and the bells around their ankles looked like ankle monitors as they jangled to the dancers’ percussive footwork.
One of the program highlights was “Druids,” performed to bells ringing out the melody of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” Tall, hooded figures in Jackson Lowell’s long, shiny cloaks entered slowly in shadows. Male dancers emerged from folds in the fabric, revealing that a female dancer atop his shoulders formed each “druid.” The men wore only shorts, and the women held aside their cloaks as they danced, giving the audience the opportunity to fully appreciate their grace and strength. For most of the program, the dancers’ bodies were hidden under loose or baggy costumes. Though these often supported the holiday theme, as when dancers wore pajamas and laid presents beside a tree in the “Twelve Days of Christmas” number, they took something away from the power of the performance, as my companion noted.
Time for caring
In the second act, two skits—“Pickets” and “Store Wars”—poked wryly at the commercialization of the holiday season. Yet Xmas Philes ultimately reinforced the true meaning of the holidays with images of hope, kindness, and togetherness. Returning as the fellow on the bench, Tony Harris, Jr. listened wistfully to a loving family celebrating inside a warm, cozy home. The door opened, and he joined a feast. This creatively staged scene featured an interesting visual when one row of diners slid onto their backs as the table flipped vertically. In “Silent Night,” dancers in gauzy white costumes walked slowly across the stage, alternately lying down to sleep and rising to wake. As voices sang about the birth of a savior, an angelic trio spread their arms like heavenly wings.
Fittingly, Xmas Philes concluded with Harris’s character receiving his wings. Was his lonely Christmas a test, or had he been an angel all along? Or did a stranger’s kindness in the form of gifted scarf make him holy? The colorful, celebratory finale “S.C. is Coming to Town” suggested that no matter the reason, the holidays are a time for caring and coming together.
What, When, Where
Xmas Philes. PHILADANCO, presented by Annenberg Center Live and NextMove Dance. December 12 through 14 at the Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 422-4580 or annenbergcenter.org.
The Annenberg Center accommodates the needs of individuals with physical disabilities. Details are available online. The Annenberg has a gender-neutral restroom.