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With Fast Forward, PHILADANCO! returned in full force this weekend for a belated celebration of the company’s 50th anniversary and the 60th anniversary of the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts, where the company was born. Founder Joan Myers Brown said when she sent her graduates to the Pennsylvania Ballet, they returned because the company was inhospitable to Black dancers. There seemed to be just one solution, and PHILADANCO! was born.
Generations of dance
More companies today are embracing diverse dancers, but PHILADANCO! has a unique voice that is more relevant than ever. It was fitting, therefore, that the night celebrated not only the dancers on the stage, but the dancers who have passed through the doors of the school and studio. During the intermission presentations, Myers Brown invited the 75 alumni in the audience to stand. It was a thrill to see the generations of dancers and former students come together to celebrate not only the anniversary of the company and the school, but its founder’s 90th birthday.
In another milestone, the Kimmel Cultural Campus also celebrated its 20th anniversary as the home of PHILADANCO! performances. The audience had come to honor and celebrate Myers Brown’s achievements, but they also showed up for the dancing. After a long year of isolation, the energy of the dancers performing for and with each other as well as for us in the audience exploded off the stage.
World premieres that reflect the times
School alumna Ashley Johnson, community reporter at 6ABC News, opened the performance, telling us that Fast Forward reflected the times and our new reality. The program told us that Roked, the title of choreographer Thang Dao’s opening piece, means to dance in the masculine form, and that to be roked means a way of life, a sense of accomplishment that leads to freedom of the self. The dancers appeared in masculine business suits, but in glowing shades of blue, green, and silver, jackets open to reveal snug skin-toned tops underneath (by costume designer Jill Peterson). As the dance progressed, Paul Guy Stevens’s ambient beat became more urgent. The dancers seemed to pass through phases symbolized by their suits: they shed their jackets and put them back on, shed their pants, and threw the jackets away to dance newfound freedom in skin-toned dance shorts. The piece included a number of interesting solos and duets, particularly the first solo, by Victor Lewis Jr., which was remarkable for the power and flow of the dancing. But the best part was the group work, often in tight formation, with dancers breaking out for a quick solo.
Choreographer Ray Mercer expressed the emotions of the evening with a recording of Maya Angelou’s Rainbow in the Clouds at the start of This Place. The dancing began with a sequence of trios in brown dance shorts and straps of the same material on top—three men, two men and a woman, two women and a man, and three women, set to a percussive score by Bongi Duma. The dancing was fast and high energy, punctuated by short duets. In one, the tempo slowed for a more lyrical, intimate moment with Mikaela Fenton and Jameel M. Hendricks: he touched the middle of her back with his hand, and she curved a leg around his back and tapped him with her foot. The piece ended with all of the dancers in long brown skirts lined with red, by costume designer Natasha Guruleva. The skirts whirled in an explosion of movement and color that brought down the house.
After the intermission, a bevy of local celebrities with ties to the company and the school presented recognitions to film director Lee Daniels who is also a supporter and former student (accepted by his mother due to a sudden illness). It was also a moment to celebrate Myers Brown’s 90th birthday and the many milestones of the company. It was a hard act to follow, and Katherine J. Smith’s Hidden Jewels may have suffered a bit from the distraction, but she soon caught our attention with her personal dance for six women. My favorite moment happened when they danced in a circle, holding hands and stretching back, off-balance, so that only the tension of each other’s arms seemed to keep them upright. The dance was set to the music of Ezio Bosso, the piano carrying the percussion theme on a softer note. He’s one of my favorite composers for dance.
Most of the audience was heading for a gala party after the performance, but Anthony Burrell’s company favorite Conglomerate started the party early. Dressed in red—the women in shorts and skirts and tops with fringe and the men in pants and shirts—the dancers flirted and showed off for each other. The formations were tight, even in the men’s explosive jumps, and the women were strong, powerful, and sexy in the club-style dance battles between the women and the men of the company. It was a joyous celebration.
What, When, Where
Fast Forward...to the Future. Choreography by Thang Dao, Ray Mercer, Katherine J. Smith, and Anthony Burrell. PHILADANCO!, presented by Kimmel Cultural Campus. $29-$49. December 10-12, 2021, at the Perelman Theater, 260 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 790-5855 or kimmelculturalcampus.org.
All patrons must wear masks inside the building. Patrons aged 12 and over must show proof of full Covid-19 vaccination at entry (Patrons over 18 must also show photo ID). Proof of negative Covid tests will not be accepted, with the exception of children under 12, who are required to show either proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours before showtime.
The Kimmel Cultural Campus is ADA compliant.
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