A PHILADANCO! star returns to Philly

Joe González and Jo-Mé Dance Theatre present Unbroken

4 minute read
Joe González, a Black male dancer with arms gracefully outstretched, dances solo in a long-sleeved burgundy leotard.
Visiting from Boston: Joe González brought his own thrilling choreography to Philly with ‘Unbroken.’ (Photo courtesy of Jo-Mé Dance Theatre.)

I have missed PHILADANCO! dancer Joe González since his return to Boston during the pandemic, so I was excited to see that he was bringing his own company, Jo-Mé Dance Theatre (cofounded with May-Lisa Chandler) to the Christ Church Neighborhood House. Unbroken, which ran May 22 to 23, 2024, reflected on surviving the terrible blows life deals, with two works choreographed by González that showed off his talents as a storyteller as well as a dancer.

Loss and yearning

Set to the mournful cello of Yo-Yo Ma playing the works of Morricone, Richter, and others, Encapsulated told a story of loss. Alone on the stage, lying under one side of a wide blanket, González stirred, gathered the sheet in his arms, and curled around it, as if grieving the memory of the person who used to sleep on the other side of the bed. The sheet rose on hooks to drape across the wall and he followed slowly to his feet as it slipped out of his hands. He seemed to reach beyond himself with a sequence of open turns, his arms out as if he yearned to fly away.

The diagonal movement from the right to meet dancer Isabelle King drew us in. King appeared out of the shadows on our left and slowly crossed the stage, again following that diagonal path, with head high and a stare a million miles away as González danced around them with small leaps, combining isolations from street dance with wide plie positions, aching with wistful sorrow as he followed King out of sight.

10 dancers in jeans, white tanks, and flannel shirts at their waists whirl around one seated sadly at center.
The Jo-Mé Dance Theatre ensemble in ‘Unbroken’ at Christ Church Neighborhood House.

The second half of the performance featured the rest of the company in group pieces performed in counterpoint to each other and in unison, interspersed with brief solos and a duet. In a particularly effective section, the group captured the sorrowful mood bending low over a lunge position that seemed to pulse, like breathing.

An unbroken true story

Guilty Until Proven Innocent was the clear winner of the evening, however. González told the story of Sean Ellis, who was imprisoned for 22 years for a crime he did not commit. As a Bostonian, González would have grown up with the case; the title Unbroken comes from Ellis’s statement that he is “wounded but not broken.”

Xavier Santafield gave a brilliant performance as Ellis. The piece opened on a dark stage, where a single spot of light shone on a metal chair with a radio on it playing snippets of music, news broadcasts, and interviews to orient the audience to the case. Then the company, in white tees and flannel shirts kilted over jeans, bounced in to Cyprus Hill’s “Insane in the Brain” with a seamless blend of 90s street dancing and contemporary technique (costumes by Chandler and González). Santafield burst onto the scene to join the fun, but the music quickly shifted to a darker ambient mode. Two dancers held him with his arms stretched behind him as he strained to escape, and a table set the stage for Ellis’s interrogation.

Holly Stone and Dara Nicole Capley as the corrupt arresting officers danced around and on top of the table, shrugging, pointing, slamming their hands down with a snap that made us jump. Then the table became the kitchen where the community pointed at an imaginary newspaper and broke apart with arabesques that swung over the table.

In ripped jeans & baggy white shirt, Cruz squats with one leg outstretched, arms supplicating upward.
A stunning performance: Ana Delgado Cruz in ‘Unbroken’ at Christ Church. (Photo courtesy of Jo-Mé Dance Theatre.)

But Santafield was the focus of attention, crouching low with his hands over his head, or turning with arms outstretched or raised as if to a “hands-up” command. Ana Delgado Cruz stunned the audience as his mother. Her hand beat at her chest like the beating of a broken heart: every move was sorrow made physical, with bended knee or wild bouncing leaps, her hair flying. We felt her passionate grief so keenly, it was hard not to weep.

Stream Unbroken at home

The show opened with Naoko Brown’s Elements, a short piece with a few interesting moments, particularly in the floor work. But the company did not seem secure in some of the group lifts, and I expect they will be trimmed down a bit for next time.

Jo-Mé Dance Theatre put on a thrilling performance with some powerful choreography realized by passionate dancers. It was the smallest audience I have seen in quite some time, however, and I am at a loss to understand it. González is a well-known name in Philadelphia—he was a star with PHILADANCO! for 10 years, and the works here promised to be relevant and intense. I am glad to say that the cast put their whole hearts into the performance for those of us who were there, and you can see it on Philadelphia Dance Project’s YouTube channel. But there is nothing like live dancers pouring their hearts out in a space so intimate you could almost touch.

What, When, Where

Unbroken. Choreography by Joe González and Naoko Brown. Jo-Mé Dance Theater, presented by Philadelphia Dance Projects. $20. May 22-23, 2024, at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N American Street, Philadelphia. (215) 546-2552 or philadanceprojects.org.


Christ Church Neighborhood House is a wheelchair-accessible venue with an elevator to the fourth-floor theater; the cobblestones outside may be difficult to navigate for those using mobility aids. This performance is available to watch for free on YouTube.

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