June 25, 2018
Philadanco is celebrating forty-eight years of existence - a stunning achievement in the unpredictable world of concert dance. Founding executive artistic director Joan Meyers Brown has programmed a fresh program of all new works that engages directly and powerfully with the politics of race in this fraught moment in our country's history. When a dancer shouts from the stage, "What are YOU gonna do?" it pierces the separation of performer and audience in a way that could not demand action more directly.
Grappling with the difficult reality that gave rise to Black Lives Matter, in the first piece there is no ambiguity about the connections drawn by Christopher Huggins in New Fruit (2017). With excellent lighting by Clifton Taylor (with abstracted trees later morphing into a cityscape) he first section pays homage to Pearl Primus' "Strange Fruit," a solo from 1943 where a woman reacts with abject despair to a lynching, to the words of Abel Meeropol's poem.
In this version, we see the young man hanging from the rope, breaking free and dancing with an intensity and control, with breath and release, mixed in with wrenching moments such as a pause to physically enact vomiting - perhaps from pain or his own inexplicable horror at this fate. The next sections of the ballet enact the present, with dancers in moving in contemporary hip hop modes, and even a capoeira-like duet, and impressive, extremely athletic solos and trios, when one young man in the group is suddenly shot in the back. It shocks, and the link between past and present could not be clearer.
In a more abstracted dance language that is equally powerful, Dawn Marie Bazemore's A Movement for Five keeps on the theme of injustices suffered by young black men, inspired by the Central Park five who were falsely accused and convicted in 1989. With a blend of modern and contemporary movement, accented and strengthened by sharp gestures that captures a sense of loss, anger, and helplessness, the dance's subtle references convey emotion without excess. A moment when all five face the upstage in a diagonal light, then collapse on the floor, rolling sideways and struggling with their hands clasped behind their backs, expresses the feelings of being harmed and helpless better than any words could. Three strong women dance between and around them, offering physical and metaphorical support to choral music that infuses it with an air of released, lifting despair. But this program is about the men. Watch around 2:54 -
The program began with Folded Prisms, a lovely work by Thang Dao, again in a modern/contemporary mode, made to look a bit dated by its costumes by Natasha Guruleva: white leotards and pants, a little baggy at the ankles, white socks and white shoes for both men and women. But the movement itself showed some influence from his Juilliard days, in its Kylianesque partnering sequences. A piece that showcased the Philadanco dancer's technical abilities in more conventional concert dance, it was a nice opener that signaled none of what was in store.
The last work on the program, With(In)Verse by Tommie-Waheed Evans, defied the expectation of ending on a happy note - a serious work, with fabulously inventive contemporary movement vocabulary, it was a bold move by Meyers Brown to not end the evening with something superficially uplifting; she refused to paper over the reality of Philadanco's message in this program, instead deploying dance in its powerful potential to mesmerize, expose, expand understanding, and call for change.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Nicole Duffy Robertson