Turning outer space into a family affair

Roger Lee Dance Company presents Galaxy

4 minute read
Lee, a Black man, in gold pants & patterned gold tank, poses with arms gracefully outspread with a colorful starry backdrop
A sunny performance: Roger Lee in his ‘Galaxy’ at the Performance Garage. (Photo by Stephanie DeFeo.)

With this year’s April 8 solar eclipse approaching, the March 29 premiere of Galaxy, the latest work from Roger Lee Dance Company, was kismet. Inspired by the Milky Way, Galaxy interprets stars and planets in dance.

It was my first time seeing the company, which is celebrating its 12th anniversary. Before the show, artistic director Roger Lee explained that it was a family affair. He expressed gratitude for the support of his parents and husband on opening night, which had a warm, celebratory vibe. The environment, music, and dancing made Galaxy an entertaining performance that redefines family-friendly dance.

Making dance accessible to youngsters

As a person without children in my life, I try to avoid performances geared toward families, but as a dance lover, I often cannot. Story ballets like Cinderella and The Nutcracker attract families with children and these tend to be the first professional dance experiences for kiddos, including me. However, such experiences can be inaccessible for little ones. Long runtimes, complex plots, classical music, and highly technical dance sequences are not exactly kid friendly. Nor are adult themes and scary characters; the wicked fairy in Sleeping Beauty elicits screams and the occasional meltdown. Large crowds, pricey tickets, and the expectation of sitting quietly can heighten the experience, but they make the environment even less welcoming to families.

Meanwhile, Galaxy delivered the opposite experience. Set to a mix of popular and instrumental music with energetic dancing, fun costumes, and two brief acts in the Performance Garage’s comfortable, intimate theater, Galaxy was truly family friendly. There were no scares, just cool space stuff and an appearance by a poised 11-year-old performer (Zara Victoria Pantoja Ventura). Even better, guests could enjoy an array of free refreshments before the show and during intermission while checking out an exhibition of Lee’s space-themed paintings.

Dancing stars

The first act focused on stars. The music reflected the theme, with songs including “Baby I’m a Star” by Prince and the Revolution. Clad in a gold costume, Lee (who also performs for his company) resembled the sun. Ashley Coats and Jasmine Newsome accompanied him in black tutus illuminated with multicolored lights. The complex choreography drew from jazz, hip hop, ballet, and contemporary. Extended balances suggested stars suspended in the night sky, while frequent spins evoked the rhythm of stars in orbit. Highlights included the upbeat opening section and a duet for Coats and Newsome full of high kicks. The act drew to a close with a striking image of Coats in a cape made of lights spread like butterfly wings.

Coats, a Black woman, poses on tip toe with a colorfully lit iridescent pleated fabric held up like wings with stars behind
Dancers like stars in the sky: Ashley Coats in Roger Lee’s ‘Galaxy’. (Photo by Stephanie DeFeo.)

The second act turned to planets. The mood took on more gravity while the choreography leaned more toward ballet and jazz; perhaps planets are less fanciful than stars. Coats, Lee, and Newsome moved like moons drawn into planetary orbit before a synchronized section that suggested the dance of celestial bodies. The timing seemed off at times, but all three performers demonstrated skillful technique and conditioning.

Intergenerational intergalactic

Galaxy’s cheerful energy returned with the Saturn section, set to “Take On Me” by a-ha. The final section addressed Earth. Ventura, who studies dance with Coats and Newsome at Step by Step in Northeast Philadelphia, confidently performed a solo. Then one of her teachers joined Ventura for a complex duet with a well-executed lift. Dancers took turns soloing as Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song” played. Mid-90s MJ can be a bit corny, but the song’s lyrics about suffering yet apathetic people on a dying planet ring truer than ever. Performing alongside Lee and her dance teachers, Ventura represented hope for a better future in multiple ways.

Galaxy concluded on this note, reinforcing the show’s support for intergenerational togetherness. It seemed the planets aligned for Roger Lee Dance Company, with the sun and moon in the news and climate change on many minds. However, Galaxy reflected optimism and a sense of community often missing in discussions of these polarizing issues. Better still, Lee’s decision to work with one of his dancers’ young dancers helped engage viewers of all ages. Wearing astronaut silver, Lee’s mother encouraged people to take home cupcakes, popcorn, and candy as they left the theater. Galaxy made me rethink what a family-friendly dance performance might look like, and you will feel like part of the family at a Roger Lee Dance Company show.

What, When, Where

Galaxy. Choreography by Roger Lee. Roger Lee Dance Company. $20-$30. March 29 and 30, 2024 at the Performance Garage, 1515 Brandywine Street, Philadelphia. Rogerleearts.com.

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