Nothing becomes a legend like getting two National Medal of Arts awards from two different presidents. As Philadanco! founder, Joan Myers Brown received one from Barack Obama for her powerful effect on American dance over the past six decades. And in March, she received another from President Joseph R. Biden as a co-founder of the International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD.) Early members such as Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, Dayton Contemporary Dance and Lula Washington Dance Theatrewere on board when they launched in 1988.
The most glamorous nonagenarian of all time, Brown recently handed over the artistic directorship of Philadanco! to Kim Y. Bears-Bailey. Bears-Baily danced with the company from 1981 for 20 years, and, in addition to her position at Philadanco! she is an Associate Professor of Dance at the University of the Arts. Many choreographers in the company’s repertoire granted her permission to remount works, among them Milton Myers. Bears-Bailey programmed his 1987 work “The Element in Which it Takes Place,” in this spring run at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’s Perelman Theater as second on the program. The costumes—straw skirts and bare midriffs diagonally sashed—looking a bit dated. But the choreography transcended time as Myers and Bears-Bailey encouraged the mostly new cast to give it their own gloss.
The score, with excerpts from Philip Glass’s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, initially seemed an odd choice. In the Hopi language it means “life out of balance” but followed by Meredith Monks’ yeowing syllabic riffs, it began to make sense as these two musical innovators were known for delving into the sounds and spirits of other cultures. Myers’ also drew on othered cultural elements, suggesting African tribal and ritualistic choreography. Both men and women repeat an archer pose, as well as other recognizable Africanist moves—bodies bent low at the waist, a flexed foot and arms forward, hands splayed, gigantic frontal leaps with knees bent. The most athletic and overtly erotic dance on the program, one man stands in a circle of seven challenging women who later lie back down while the men leapt over them as if waking them. In one sequence, William E. Burden plays hard to get with Mikaela Fenton in their near-aerobatic duet. Later, he’s no less high-flying, pursuing her.
Hip hop star choreographer, Rennie Harris revivified his “F-E-A-R” (2019) for seven of the company’s women dancers with the addition of a member of Danco II, young Onederful Ancrum Harris’s program notes contextualize both his piece and the entire program. He writes that “F-E-A-R” is an acronym for False Events Appearing Real. He sees street dance as African diasporic dance that most of us see “through [a programmed] western lens.”
I agree. Unless you are a dance or anthropology researcher how many of us would know the difference between Sutu, Yuruban or Zulu dance styles? But just as with an Israeli or Middle Eastern inflected company like Philadelphia’s Koresh Dance or Kun-Yang Lin Dance with its Asian tang and mystical aura, their origins come clear.
Harris set the piece to the Cinematic Orchestra which remixes live source music with jazz improvisation and electronica, letting the dancers choose their own costumes—everyday streetwear. They slow walk the street and social dance moves so you see them coming not merely from what the western lens calls muscle memory, but as if from bone memory. At one point they all fall on their backs as a mysterious shaft of light off to the side blinds, fascinates and frightens them. Designer, Nick Kolin narrows the light to a strip across their shuddering torsos as it ends.
The world premiere of current resident choreographer Ray Mercer’s “Balance of Power” opened the show. He’s known for his role as the Giraffe in “The Lion King” on Broadway for a record-breaking 25 years. But also, for his sensational work, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” which Philadanco! has toured around the world. Four men in a rectangular spot carry Fenton above them. She could be a trophy, a goddess or a sacrificial victim. Once setting her down, the men race through arabesque tours. Their quicksilver moves end abruptly as a trio of women begin what appears to be a temple dance. Burden solos, turning his bent knees out, hands behind his back as if cuffed, rotating his head. Natasha Guruleva designed the costumes, black pants with crisscrossed midriff tops for the women.
Midway the men don suit jackets lined in violet silk as what sounds like gunshots ring out. Ballet, hip hop, a bit of jazz dance and contemporary pedestrian moves quickly meld together for a dazzling array of choreographic wizardry that included the women and men exchanging the jackets as if in mid-air. Mercer’s “Lion King” colleague, Zulu singer Bongi Duma created the original score. Scorching duets between Xavier Santafield and Fenton, and Brandi Pinnix and Victor Lewis Jr, added even more brio to this “dance for the sake of dance” as Mercer describes it.
Tommie-Waheed Evans was a longtime Philadanco! dancer and a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow. The world premiere of his “Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth” ended the evening with a soulful, gospel inflected dance with stunning midnight blue iridescent costumes by Anna-Alisa Belous. Triangular flaps of the fabric sewn on the side seams of the dancers pants flare out giving the joyful dance an extra dimension. I thought of angel wings. All the women lie on the floor and rise to run off stage left as Janine N. Beckles bourrées in reverse downstage right arms straight out, wrists upturned as if pushing away from the others. Xavier Santafield solos mournfully, and a poignant duet between Mikal Gilbert and Brandi Pinnix ends with him lying across Gilbert’s lap—a Black Pieta?
Connor Lemon pulled together the moving sound design from such great singers as Phyllis Hyman and Jeff Buckley, both deceased. Evans dedicated to the memory of the late Debora Chase Hicks who trained and danced with Philadanco! and then became coach and rehearsal director at Philadanco! for the for the rest of her life, which ended in May, 2021. “This work is for you,” Evans says in his program notes, “because you can’t come here and we can’t go there, we must create a space to be together . . . Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth.”