Ronen (Roni, as he likes to be known) Koresh premiered “TikVAH,” his first work back at Philadelphia’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre since 2019. Two years is a long time in a dancer’s short performance life. Tikvah may mean hope in Hebrew, but it comes from a root word that means to bind or to wait for. In celebrating the 30th year of Koresh Dance Company he kept his 10-member troupe and dance school together through the Covid-19 ordeal by keeping them socially distanced yet moving and in dancing shape in their own Rittenhouse Square studio. No one guessed how long they’d have to wait to be able to touch each other again. During last week’s run, a curtain talk took the place of an intermission (no congregating in the lobby permitted.) Someone asked Koresh at what point he allowed his dancers and students to couple and partner again.
“Once we were all vaccinated,” he replied feistily. Meanwhile, like so many other companies, Koresh partnered with other artists to make short films that kept their followers engaged. There were also the Black Lives Matter tensions between people of color and the police after George Floyd’s murder.
Philadelphia’s large Jewish and African American communities have often worked together against biases and threats. Within its arts community, and especially during the pandemic, companies with greater resources shared them regardless of race or ethnicity. Koresh brought out one of the best examples directing three of Philadelphia’s greatest male dancers, Rennie Harris, Raphael Xavier, Zane Booker in The Elephant is in the Room with words and voice by Koresh’s long-time collaborator Karl Mullen.
This season welcomes three new dancers, Devon Larcher, Paige Devitt, and Callie Hocter. But most company collaborators, like Melissa Rector, who also choreographs for the Koresh Youth Ensemble which opens each show, and lighting designer Peter Jakubowski have been with Koresh since its beginning; Micah Geyer, since 2007 and Robert Tyler and Kevan Sullivan since 2012 and 2013 respectively. Yin Yue (YY Dance Company) and Princeton University instructor, Xavier are listed as collaborating artists in the program, and I expect their influences will expand the company’s trademark look and narratives: fast, furious, funny, and endlessly fascinating.
In “TikVAH,” Koresh took us through seven of the emotional passages he and his company experienced. During the section called “Finding all in One” Jakubowski striped the full cast with alternating bars of dark and light made them seem imprisoned, fearful, straining to escape. Even John Levis’s music, with its percussive counterpoint against lush string sections, seemed at odds with itself and the moment. Finally, they crash through, dancing defiantly, as fierce as they ever were, coming to rest only with Levis’s pensive pianistic moment at the end.
Knowing what was to come, Mullen’s poem “Light at the end of the Tunnel” to his music and narrated in his soothing, comforting voice had the opposite effect on me. Here the dancers rose and fell, sleeping or dancing, with Rector walking among the bodies. But the oft-repeated use of the cliché title became as annoying as chalk on a blackboard.
“Sideways,” with music by Berlin-based composer Nils Frahm was far more interesting and poignant. Rector dances solo, her only partner an empty chair, expressing the forlornness of people who lived alone during the last year. The next four sections became harder to discern, each blurring together with the full company. The athleticism of the men featured in one with chairs upended and balanced upon to vaguely Middle-Eastern music roller-coastered through anger and despair, with the women pulling the chairs out from under the men. They end with to the floor coffee-grinders and hands on their faces like Edvard Munch’s The Scream. It’s only in the final section, “Can’t Let Go” that the dancers begin to partner in non-gendered duos and larger formations.
Among the excerpts from the first thirty years were some of my favorites. To French-Algerian music by Sheb Khaled, 2005’s “Standing in Tears,” the choreography of watery arms swept forward and high kicks, including at least one of Rector’s famous six-o’clock extensions, and the women forming circles around the men, still holds my attention. “Negative Spaces” had Larcher and Geyer in one of the best dances of comedic inebriation ever. Passing their brown-bagged bottles between them until they’re empty, they lurch off stage. In the most romantic duet of the evening, “Theater of Public Secrets” (2008), Sullivan partners Hocter who twirls her parasol hypnotically casting Sullivan under her spell. I absolutely love Levis’s music to “Inner Sun,” the penultimate work on the program. Earthy, primitive, mysterious and strangely intimate, it gives the beat to the company to fall on their knees, and jump up to punch the air all around them.
Finally, in “The Heart” with music to Hugues Le Bars, the dancers don black suits as if going to a party, checking each other out, before turning to us in a unison lineup. We are their mirror as they begin to take their bows. But for me, the most joyful part of the evening was when Roni boogied out across the line and joined them, hand in hand.