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ph~Julieanne Harris

Philadanco’s Spring Dances thrill

Joan Myers Brown always brings something new for her annual spring dance season at the Kimmel Center Cultural Campus. Philadanco returned to live performances last fall with ‘Fast Forward’ a program of premiere works that was in celebration of the company’s 50th Anniversary year but was postponed due to the pandemic.

 Last week Philadanco hit the Perelman Theater stage with retooled ballets by choreographers Ray Mercer, Jowale Willa Ja Zollar, Ulysses Dove, and Rennie Harris in a program called  ‘RE (RE-vived and Archived, RE-visted and RE-constructed ballets, four of Brown’s favorite ballets from ‘Danco’s vault of over 200 repertory works.

And this program was packed with ‘Danco signature styles that showcased the range of its current roster of 12 dancers and back for this high-octane bill that included guest artist alums Lamar Baylor, Adryan Moorefield, and Courtney Robinson.

A tall table is center stage for Ray Mercer’s ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ so tall and wide that the cast of eight dancers fly over-under-sideways-down it with fearless speed and accuracy in Mercer serves up a simmering dance drama of narratives about relationships, conflicts, crisis, romance, breakups

Some of the duets have the flash of show-dance couplings, but dazzlingly fueled with daredevil balletics. The lighting design of sudden fade outs and half-spots adds to the effects of the duets as the dancers flash through a series of dramatic antagonistic scenes. In contrast Mikaela Fenton’s dances, a solo under the table that is full of mystery and anguish.

Next, Jowale Zollar’s‘The Walkin,’ Talkin,’ Signifying Blues Hips, Sacred Hips, Lowdown, Throwdown

The title says it all and the dancers illustrate the details with Zollar’s sensual, deep dive into Afro-Caribbean vernaculars. set to a raucous mix of original music by Zollar and Percussion virtuoso Junior ‘Gabu’ Wedderburn.

The first scene, BattyMoves, (means butt) and danced by soloist Kaylah Arielle with wry, sexy flair and expression of the body as manifest power. Then the slow, breezy processional with dancers Leslie Bunkley, Mikaela Fenton, Drani Pinnix, Brittany Wright in a sensual and lyrical line as they float over the stage in a choreographic character study of feminine mystique titled ‘Soon Come’

Then ‘Up in Here’ a wily funk rap workout instructional to cue ‘attitude walks, power twerks, solidarity in the body beautiful power to the nth degree. The fabulous costume designs by Terri Shockley in a Jamaican couture. The finale section a mix of Africanist movement and explosive modern expressions. Joan Myers Brown making a star appearance with some sage elegance steps all her own. This audience wild with cheers and applause the whole time.

Choreographer Ulysses Dove was a Cunningham and Ailey dancer in the 60s, and after an injury that side-lined him while AAADT was on tour, Ailey asked him to choreograph a work on Ailey’s junior company. Dove was a choreographic student at Juilliard, but never aspired to be a choreographer. Dove went on to choreograph major works for AAADT, ABT, NYCB and top international companies including, Royal Swedish Ballet, Dutch National Balletet.al. Dove’s concepts and technical approach is still revealing his singular choreographic voice, in terms of classical modernist idioms and liberating interpretive artistry. Dove died of AIDS complications  died of AIDS in 1996. ‘Bad Blood’ is a modern classic.

Jameel Hendricks dances the arresting opening solo to ‘Bad Blood’ that states many of the movement themes. The dancers in white unitards to accentuate Dove’s distinct innovations in a series of sculptural duets that freeze in moments, sometime in mid-trajectory. Dove’s signature tight mach-speed turn variations, geometric port de bra that speaks volumes and explosive leaps for the men and women.

Dynamic lighting design by ”’ in tantem with 80s altnoir music by Peter Gabriel and Laura Anderson. Dove’s choreography stage composition haunts. He plays with time, space, and potent stage composition. The audience responded with applause at the dancers supple precision. Among the standouts Janine Beckles and Adryan Moorefield in a central duet completely embodied the dynamic lyricism in Dove’s powerful balletics.

Rennie Harris choreographed ‘Wake Up’ in 2014 and after watching the rehearsals in Philadanco’s studiosfor this revival, he saw immediately how it should be revived. It was already one of his PureMovement works with self-defining messages of what hip-hop is aesthetically and what the idioms represent culturally.

For ‘RE’ he wanted to impart its original energy on new dancers “refine it a little bit. He saw spots where he could make it more urban contemporary from just 10 years ago. “Use more Afro-beat music, more communal passes.”  ‘

‘Wake Up’ resonates in the wake of the many incidents of police killings of black Americans in recent years. It contains a fiery speech voiceover by MLK.

Laced through music mix by composer Darrin Ross and are voiceover excerpts from a fiery speech by Dr. Martin Luther King and other commentary in reference to the many incidents of the killings of black Americans by law enforcement.

Those civil-rights issues resonate from the first scene as Lamar Baylor is in distress, gasping for breath, he ends up lifeless on the ground as Harris’ ensemble movement ignites the full company in razor sharp unison, hip-hop choreography that heats up to even more complex, but completely fluid streams. Baylor floating in and out of the action, ramping it up. In various scenes Baylor is in slow motion, ghostly and weaving in and out of the dance action.

 In his program note, Harris states, “Wake Up” shows us through the lens of dance that community people relationships in hip hop define itself then this cannot be altered nor controlled.” Harris is credited for the costume ‘concept’ consisting of street clothes that evoke retro black fashions, from 60s jazz club cool to black power Afros of the 70s to yesterday. Harris has a terrific sense of theatrical and historic arc, and the choreography and themes of ‘Wake Up. are relevant as ever.