April 27, 2012 by Jess Herbine
The nationally renowned Philadelphia-based dance company Philadanco supported the Kimmel Center April 20-22 during its 10th anniversary season with “The Philadelphia Connection” at the Perelman Theater. After the show, company founder Joan Myers Brown stayed for a Q-and-A and signed copies of dance scholar Brenda Dixon Gottschild’s recent biography on Myers Brown: “Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina: A Biohistory of American Performance,” released December 2011.
The spring series began with a graceful performance of “Gatekeepers,” choreographed by Ronald K. Brown. The music, composed by Wunmi Olaiya, was quirky and serene, juxtaposing the lightness of a xylophone and sharp drumming. Dressed in muted maroon and mauve leotards, the sextet featured five females and one male in an ensemble piece that symbolized the performers as “soldiers walking toward heaven, searching for the wounded and looking out to make a safe haven for others to follow.” The dance vocabulary was elegant and highly technical, but the piece was the least memorable among those presented.
The aesthetics seemingly took precedence over the choreography in “Tribute,” in which the men were wrapped in bright green V-necks while the women drew energy from vibrant blue bikinis over vivacious pink. The combination of these colors with the movement’s quick partner-and-ensemble work often gave the impression of a Technicolor TV blurring in and out of focus. The piece, an abstract ballet from 2000, paid tribute to Philadelphia International Records (Gamble and Huff) with selections like the O’Jays’ “For The Love of Money” and “Livin’ for the Weekend” and Teddy Pendergrass’ “And If I Had.” These cool, jazzy tunes gave way to a highly sensual piece that lacked character chemistry but impressed by displaying the dancers’ sheer flexibility and agility, which was so highly stylized that I was shocked to hear it was considered a ballet.
“Suite en Bleu” featured music from Handel and Bach and was yet a closer derivative of modern ballet with a graceful, partially on-point performance featuring sleek and springy steps. The classical scores dated the feel of the piece, which incorporated more traditional ballet lifts, curved arms and tight spins with minimal floor work and bent extremities. The women floated in long indigo dresses with open backs. However, the men looked a bit odd in tight-fit, glittering overalls that were perfectly terminating below their muscled pecs.
For the second time in the performance, the men’s costume appeared more effeminate than the women’s; fortunately, the performance’s relentless number of leg extensions and high-energy choreography gave the entire company that cut-and-carved-out-of-wood appeal.
The two pieces which blatantly paid homage to Philadelphia, “Tribute” and “Wake Up,” got the dancers into their costuming element. Dressed in streetwear that accentuated their dance prowess, their skills were highlighted by an effortless and tangible sense of attitude. Dressed down in jeans, cut-off tops, sneakers and a few giant Afro wigs, the ensemble embodied the spirit and social climate of African Americans in the 1970s. The sudden pantomimed shooting of the male lead was one of the few moments of storytelling. From there, the dance transitioned from a tale of struggle to one of celebration. Music by Fela Kuti whispered narrations about “being African” and what it is like for “us Africans,” while the dancers moved joyously in sync with one another as if belonging to a secret club. The strength of their passion and the consistency of their furious footwork was a true spectacle to behold. Just as two exiting audience members described it, “The Philadelphia Connection” was “exquisite, exhilarating and exhausting,” and it left the city wanting more.