Premieres and a tribute to Gene Hill Sagan

PHILADANCO! presents Intangible Influences

4 minute read
Gilbert squats with Fenton lying gracefully extended across his knees. They both wear bronze, silver & gold bodysuits.

PHILADANCO!’s Intangible Influences recognizes the company’s history and looks to the future with works by the late resident choreographer Gene Hill Sagan, returning choreographer Christopher L. Huggins, and newer choreographers Christopher Rudd and Nijawwon K. Matthews, a former PHILADANCO dancer. Each piece had strengths, but two works stood out. Matthews’s From Dystopia to Our Declaration and Huggins’s Retro bookended the program for a compelling opening and a strong finish. Together, Intangible Influences incorporated different styles and tones that demonstrated the company’s range.

High concept, terrific dancing

Set to music by Dave August, From Dystopia is a high-concept piece with terrific dancing. Lighting by Cheyenne Sykes and Nick Kolin and costumes by Mondo Morales and Rufus Cottman enhanced the movement throughout. The opening scene bathed dancers in dreamy light as they sat on the floor with bent knees. Their costumes appeared flesh-toned until they lifted their arms and hands in beseeching gestures, revealing colored panels along the sides of their arms and torsos. One dancer, Raven Joseph, wore a dress instead of pants and performed the lead. In a stirring solo, a cone of light illuminated Joseph as she sank to the floor, crawled, and twisted with limbs writhing. Her character’s struggle culminated in Joseph lowering her torso and upper body to meet her lower half on the floor very slowly, with precision and control.

The tempo changed as the lights came up and others reentered, lifting and carrying Joseph as if she were a prophet or religious leader. The closing sequences suggested a celebration as dancers moved in a circle and male dancers lifted partners onto their shoulders. Program notes describe From Dystopia as addressing emotions and the soul, and Joseph was outstanding as the viewer’s guide. The full company danced well, and constant shifts in formation, tempo, and level added visual appeal and showed Matthews’s choreographic talent. Yet the narrative and theme lacked development. It was difficult to identify the six distinct sections with creative names listed in the program.

Human desire

Mikaela Fenton, Mikal Gilbert, Christian Diyah Gonzalez, Victor Lewis Jr., Brandi Pinnix, and Brena K. Thomas performed the world premiere of Rudd’s Mating Season, which considers desire as an integral part of the human experience. Clad in bodysuits that reflected the light, the dancers formed kinetic shapes invoking attunement and intimacy, such as when the female dancers laid their hands on their partners’ heads while the men lifted them and spun. Complex sequences of balances and headstands repeat throughout the dance.

Mating Season might have been overly complex at times. The dancers shone, clearly giving their all, yet they struggled with several physically and technically demanding moves. A false ending made the piece seem too long, but its actual end was a highlight. Mesmerizing spins paralleled the hypnotic music by Loscil and Tariq Al-Sabir. The dancers formed a circle, all six making different shapes with their bodies.

A tribute to Sagan

For Reflections… An Ode to Sagan, PHILADANCO! artistic director Kim Y. Bears-Bailey excerpted portions of works that Sagan created for other companies. Reflections offers a tribute to the choreographer, celebrating his style and imagery. Nick Kolin’s lighting and Natasha Guruleva’s costumes contributed to the reverential tone. The backdrop resembled the night sky, offsetting dancers wearing Hellenic-inspired skirts in somber black as they knelt with their wrists crossed in a beseeching gesture. Fenton cradled an illuminated object in her hands, then laid it on the floor to dance with expressive emotion.

Sounds of a clock chiming signaled Reflections drawing to a close. The dancers moved into a striking formation in the final image, making a line with multiple levels. The piece was well performed, but its neoclassical style did not draw me in as deeply as the others.

A Retro look ahead

Retro turned up the heat, kicking off with visually arresting moving formations. Dancers wore costumes by Guruleva in shades of pink and purple that reflected the liveliness of this world premiere. The first section concluded with dancers splitting into two groups that slowly sidestepped offstage. In the second movement, William E. Burden, Gilbert, and Gonzalez resembled drinking buddies as they took stuttering movements with their arms around each other’s shoulders.

The third movement combined a fast pace with up-tempo music. Pairs of dancers performed a series of lifts, and one jumped into a kneeling position on another’s chest. Retro drew to a strong finish with dancers moving their arms rhythmically like the hands of a clock.

Intangible Influences implies legacies not perceptible by touch, but PHILADANCO! delivered a performance viewers could see and feel. It also connected the company’s past with its present and looked to the future with two world premieres. Retro and From Dystopia to Our Declaration were highlights of a strong and varied evening of dance.

At top: Dancers in the PHILADANCO! ensemble. (Photo by J. Harris.)

What, When, Where

Intangible Influences. Choreography by Christopher L. Huggins, Christopher Rudd, Nijawwon K. Matthews, and Gene Hill Sagan. PHILADANCO! $29-$49. December 8-10, 2023, at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’s Perelman Theater, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia.


The Kimmel's Perelman Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation