The kick-off of Philadanco’s 50th anniversary season on Oct. 5 in the Merriam Theater was truly a dance night to remember, starting with the unrestrained love of four generations of dance artists and ‘Danco’ fans that erupted when Joan Myers Brown came on stage to introduce the concert. The Philadanco school also marks its 60th anniversary next year. Brown’s inestimable contributions to African-American dance, education and community engagement has changed the arts and cultural landscape of Philadelphia and indeed, nationally.
This ‘Genesis’ concerts were a company retrospective and in the first half comprised performances from the company’s student and apprentice troupes. The youngest members, the D/ 3 Juniors, danced ‘Let Freedom Ring’ choreographed by Ali Willingham, and performed with earnest spirit that it felt like an invocation to the evening. The D/3 older students then performed ‘A Way Out’ expressive the ‘Danco style choreographed by current company member Joe Gonzalez. Then the troupe from the apprentice company D/2 ‘Convergence’ choreographed by alum Francesco Gello. Gello’s contemporary vocabulary showcased D/2’s technical artistry and ensemble esprit.
The concert’s first half concluded with a star turn performance by Philadelphian Leslie Odom, Jr. the Tony award winning actor from the original cast of Hamilton. He credited his experience as “the worse dancer in class” year at Philadanco studios on Preston Ave. in West Philadelphia. Despite that fact, he said, “Joan Myers Brown found a place for me and gave him the tools and direction.” At 17, Odom was confident enough to audition and cast in the National Touring Company of Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent.
Odom performed a most soulful rendition of the rock ballade ‘Without You’ from Rent and midway through former Danco dancer Hope Boykin danced an expressive solo. It was a ‘were you there the night…’ dance-theater moment. Boykin was a Danco star for many years before she became a dancer-choreographer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Three signature ballets from different eras filled the second half of the program danced by the current roster of professional Danco dancers. Former member Gary Jeter, Jr. returned for a guest appearance in choreographer Ron K. Brown’s ‘Exotica.’ A raucous mash-up of black social dance vocabulary, laced with Africanist dance set to a suite of overlapping funk songs, and driving Afrobeat jams by British composer Wunmi Olaiya and a traditional spiritual by gospel great Mahalia Jackson. The cast dressed in red velvet dancewear, some members complete with 70s era Afros. This piece may be retro, but with this cast remains so cool, it still burns the floor.
Next choreographer Milton Myers’ ‘Love and Pain’ set to songs by Aretha Franklin led off by Danco assistant director Kim Y. Bears-Bailey dancing a soulful solo to Franklin’s ‘Save Me.’ Rosita Adamo also spellbinding in her solo to the iconic ‘Natural Woman.’ Alum Roxanne Lyst was inside Myers’ minimalist movement drama of Franklin’s torch song ‘Ain’t No Way.’ The full cast of Danco women bringing the house down with black dance styles and dancefloor shade on Franklin’s hits ‘Don’t Play That Song for Me’ ‘Think’ and of course ‘Respect.’
In 2001 choreographer Christopher Huggins’ choreographed ‘Enemy Behind the Gates’ for the company and it is even more powerful now its impact. Huggins themes of enemies among us is as powerful as ever. Scored to music by Steve Reich builds so much tension in the front half as Huggins’ stating the choreographic themes of suspicion and betrayal. Tension builds through tight ensemble scenes that are then released through Reich’s propulsive score. Huggins’ themes keep evolving and at breakneck speed, punctuated by explosive aerials, precarious lifts and thrilling ensemble pyrotechnics. At the conclusion the theater sounded like a soccer stadium, the audience on its feet. ‘Enemy’ was the capper on a dance night to remember.
The ‘Genesis’ concerts were the first of many special performances and events through next year. In January 2020, dance troupes, artistic directors, and choreographers from all over the world will convene in Philadelphia for The International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) established in 1987. They will be here to pay tribute to the Philadanco’s 50th Anniversary and to the organization’s founder, none other than Joan Myers Brown.