During this year of darkened theaters, some dance companies have embraced technology, taking the work outdoors and creating for film on the landscape or dancing with the tech itself. I enjoy these, but like most fans of live performance, I’ve missed sitting in a theater, engaging with the artists across the footlights. Streaming from the Annenberg’s empty Harold Prince Theater, PHILADANCO!’s October 29 performance brought that experience back.
The camera work and tour lighting director Melody Beal’s light design pulled our attention to a dancer here, drew back to embrace the whole stage there, and I felt tension I didn’t even know I was carrying drain away. I still sat on my couch, but I was also in a virtual seat in a real theater. I settled in for a short but intense evening of duets and solos performed by Joe González and Janine Beckles.
Masks on and off
The first piece, With-Held, reflected the stages of a relationship in the time of COVID. It began in silence on an empty stage, dark except for two bands of blue light. Beckles, in a dark dress, and González, in dark shirt and pants, entered and walked past each other. They both wore facemasks and they returned, circling each other in a back-and-forth of hesitation. When they removed the masks it resonated with emotion as the dancers discovered the freedom to show their feelings.
Olaf Arnauds’s music is by turns wistful and urgent, with the sound of time ticking away as the dancing grows more insistent in its tempo. I caught my breath when González covered his face with his hands, as if he had suddenly become aware that it was naked. Finally, the masks are put back on—the end of a relationship, or a return to the harsh reality of a world in which we love best by keeping our distance. Beckles and González choreographed the piece and their partnering seemed effortless, as if they were living the relationship. Although created with a pandemic sensibility, I expect With-Held will remain relevant when we have put our masks away.
Rosa and A Movement for Five
After a brief pause for a costume change, Beckles appeared in the solo from Billy Wilson’s Rosa, created for PHILADANCO! in 1989 as a tribute to Rosa Parks. In the larger piece, a white woman would sit on one of the two chairs on the stage, and more women would be dancing their distress, leading to the solo. Without these signifiers, the meaning of the chairs does not become clear until the very end of the dance, when Beckles sits down.
However, the solo, danced to Roberta Flack’s version of the spiritual “I Told Jesus,” stands on its own as a powerful statement of anguish and determination. The piece is heavily influenced by the Martha Graham style and Beckles, who teaches Graham method, did it justice. Her long skirted dress by Natasha Gurleva (again, in the Graham style) floated in circles as she turned and her floorwork was steeped in anguish when she knelt, raising her hands in prayer, and fell backward.
A solo from Dawn Marie Bazemore’s A Movement for Five followed. The piece, commissioned by the company in 2015, was inspired by the case of the Central Park Five, in which five innocent young men were incarcerated for several years. It was the darkest piece of the night and the stage was suitably set in shadows, with just a pale spotlight on the floor and sometimes only the reflection off González’s body to light the work. Sigur Rós’s plaintive music weeps for the Five.
González gave a performance so full of pain and confusion that it tears your heart. He reaches, for escape or understanding, his arm outstretched, knees bent, then writhes on the floor with his arms behind him, as if in shackles. Where the Rosa solo put an emphasis on floorwork, the For Five excerpt highlighted González’s shoulders as he pulled against the chains of his imprisonment and the impossible nightmare of the false accusation.
Distanced dancers succeed
An excerpt from Super 8, with choreography by Ray Mercer and metronomic drum and bass music by Bonji Duma and John Powell, closed the evening on a sassier note. The dancing was sharp and precise and the relationship between Beckler and González was fun to watch, but I felt like I was just getting into it when it was over.
These are tough times for dancers. Solos and duets are generally parts of longer works shared with the members of the company. But González and Beckles kept dance alive with technique as versatile as the styles of their choreographers and a commitment to the emotional messages in the works they portrayed. They filled the stage with their presence and left me wanting more.
Image description: A photo of two dancers, a woman and a man, small on a dark stage with faint blue light. They are in nearly identical positions, standing on one leg and leaning forward, with the other leg extended straight up and behind. The woman wears a short black dress and the man wears black pants and shirt.
What, When, Where
An evening of solos and duets presented by PHILADANCO!, livestreamed from the Annenberg Center on October 29, 2020, and accessible on demand through October 31, 2020. (215) 387-8200 or Philadanco.org.