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If you are looking for an alternative to the carols and nutcrackers that dominate the season, PHILADANCO! has you covered with Intangible Influences at the Perelman Theater for four performances from December 8-10. The program includes works by two of my DANCO favorites Gene Hill Sagan and Christopher L. Huggins, and two newer choreographers, Christopher Rudd and former company member Nijawwon K. Matthews.
Home is where the heart dances
The centerpiece of the performance is Reflections … An Ode to Sagan, artistic director Kim Y. Bears-Bailey’s celebration of the neoclassical work of Sagan, with music by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Arvo Pärt. PHILADANCO! audiences remember Sagan for The Valse, and his sultry Sweet Agony was my favorite piece in a 2017 performance, but during his lifetime, Sagan choreographed for companies across Europe and in Israel, where he lived as an expat for many years. Still, DANCO always drew him home. He first worked with them in the 1970s and later served 15 years as resident choreographer until his death in 1991 at the age of 59. According to founder and artistic advisor Joan Myers Brown, the company has the rights to all his ballets. For Reflections, Bears-Bailey brings together works he created for the Kibbutz Contemporary and Batsheva Dance Companies, including Elegy and Conversations for Seven Souls, among others.
Bears-Bailey has worked with Sagan’s choreography for years, and her interpretation is founded in a deep understanding of his work, but Zane Booker, assistant rehearsal director and coach, said the dancers still faced challenges. He had a globe-spanning career as a dancer himself before returning to PHILADANCO!, so he understands the challenge. “The things he did in Israel were very different from the things he did for PHILADANCO!,” he said, “The style is very different, and when we try to interpret it, it feels like a different choreographer.” Dancers watched videos of the original performances, but, he said, “The temperament is different. It’s not the weight; it’s not the gravitas that we are used to.” But he says the dancers have put in the work to bring all the DANCO-style emotion.
Finding the flow
Huggins is another favorite, bringing intensity and depth with pieces like New Fruit and Enemy Behind the Gates, so a new piece is always exciting. Retro looks like another memorable work. According to Booker, Huggins “lets the music lead him.” In Retro, he draws on an eclectic mix of Tony Anderson’s ambient sounds, Cremation Lily’s industrial/ambient with jagged edges, and the techno house of Private Press. Huggins works with contrast in the music and also in the dancing, Booker says, “So that even though the music may sound harsh, and it may attack, and it may be repetitive, he’s looking to find a fluidity that contrasts with that music.”
Retro invites the audience, as well as the dancers, to reconnect with the past, their own as well as history. It’s Booker’s job to make sure the dancers know the steps and, just as important, help them find the motivation and make their own emotional journey in the tension between the dance and the music.
With Intangible Influences, PHILADANCO! set out to chart the path of influence between established choreographers like Huggins and the new generation. For Huggins, the emotion faces outward, addressing the world around us. Matthews has worked with Huggins in the past, and like Huggins, he looks to music as an integral part of his work in the company premiere From Dystopia to Our Declaration, which he created in collaboration with composer Dave August. Matthews brings the emotion as well, but at a deeply intimate level as he explores in dance his struggle with his identity. “He really is telling a story of coming to understand himself and who he is as a person,” Booker said, and the dramatic [and sometimes ominous] music “expresses the internal and dramatic struggle made external for the audience.”
Brown is keeping the lid on Rudd’s Mating Season but says it is “quite different from what people usually see PHILADANCO! do.” She promises it will be a surprise.
What, When, Where
Intangible Influences. Choreography by Gene Hill Sagan, with excerpted works compiled by Kim Y. Bears-Bailey, Christopher L. Huggins, Nijawwon K. Matthews, and Christopher Rudd. PHILADANCO!, presented by the Kimmel Cultural Campus. $29-$49 (with an $11.50 convenience fee for online orders, plus an additional $4.00 order fee). December 8-10, 2023, at the Kimmel Cultural Campus's Perelman Theater, 260 S Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 387-8200 or philadanco.org.
The Kimmel Cultural Campus is an ADA-compliant facility.
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