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By Megan Bridge and Kristin Schwab
The city’s ever-expanding dance scene has made it an increasingly appealing––and affordable––option for dancers.
Above: Artistic director Roy Kaiser has expanded PA Ballet’s Balanchine-based repertoire to include modern works by Merce Cunningham and David Parsons, as well as contemporary ballet choreographers like Jirí Kylián, William Forsythe (his Artifact Suite pictured above), and Alexei Ratmansky. He’s also frequently commissioned work from local choreographers. Matthew Neenan, for instance, is the company’s resident choreographer. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy PA Ballet.
When locals talk about Philadelphia, they often say outsiders won’t understand its appeal unless they move there. Tourist sites like the Liberty Bell and Constitution Hall may bring thousands of visitors to the city, but reveal little of its character. Dancers, though, thrive on the city’s vibrancy—its expanding, yet intimate, arts community with its traditional to offbeat voices, plus its wealth of performance spaces and training options. For over 40 years, national companies like Pennsylvania Ballet and Philadanco have anchored the dance scene, while Rennie Harris Puremovement, Koresh Dance Company, and postmodern Headlong Dance Theater shake it up.
Above: Philly is filled with world dance. Pictured here is bharata
natyam group Three Aksha Company. Photo by Johanna Austen, Three Askha
Below: Modern-dance–focused Group Motion Dance Company is a Philly transplant. It started in Berlin in 1962 and immigrated to Philadelphia in the late ‘60s. The founding artistic directors were Mary Wigman followers. Photo by Johanna Austen, Courtesy Group Motion.
It would be too easy to say that the city’s thriving dance scene is a 90-minute Amtrak ride from New York City. While some choreographers like Kun-Yang Lin and Susan Rethorst have relocated to Philly in part to take advantage of its lower cost of living and cheaper studio rentals, the abundance of dance education options plays the biggest role. Dancers come to train and stay to perform. The Pennsylvania Ballet School, which opened last fall, is one testament to the steady expansion of dance education, and schools like University of the Arts and Temple University draw dancers for intensive degree study.
Many dancers from Philadelphia’s companies, as well as higher ed grads, stay on in the city to make their own work. This accounts for the tight-knit community of boutique companies: BalletX started by former PA Ballet dancers Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan, Puremovement alums Brandon “Peace” Albright (Illstyle & Peace Productions) and Raphael Xavier, to name a few. What’s clear is that students and professionals here feel there’s a niche for everyone. Or maybe it’s just that brotherly love.
Right: With 10 dancers, BalletX is a rep company that has premiered over 30 works by cutting-edge contemporary ballet choreographers like Jorma Elo, Helen Pickett, and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Picture is Nicolo Fonte’s Beautiful Decay. Photo by Bill Hebert, Courtesy BalletX.
Below: Puremovement break-dancing alum Raphael Xavier was awarded a 2013 Pew Fellowship, a prestigious award for local artists. Photo courtesy Raphael Xavier.
Tackling Technique in Philly
Places to take class
The Rock School for Dance Education remains a top training ground for ballet dancers, with a residency program for high school students.
The School of Pennsylvania Ballet opened last fall under the direction of former PA Ballet principal Arantxa Ochoa. Photo at right: Arantxa Ochoa of the new School of PA Ballet. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Headlong Performance Institute’s semester away program, accredited through Bryn Mawr College, offers a range of courses, including improvisation, clowning, composition, and dramaturgy.
Drexel University offers more than a dance minor. The department has a yearly residency program for local choreographers to set work on its students.
Philadanco heads Philadelphia School of Dance Arts, which offers technique classes in ballet to hip-hop.
Koresh School of Dance has a children’s division and open classes
for adults and professionals. Above: Koresh Dance in rehearsal at its studios. Photo by Frank Bickling, Courtesy Koresh.
Choreographer Kun-Yang Lin leads CHI Movement Arts Center, where dancers can take master classes with
the company and other local artists.
From intimate to grand, Philly has a lot to offer. The annual FringeArts festival in September offers a sampler of local, national, and international artists. The Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Pennsylvania draws big-name headliners like MOMIX and Paul Taylor. Head to Bryn Mawr College, just outside the city, to see edgier contemporary work. And Stone Depot Dance Lab, a sort of DIY dance space that’s a live-in loft, serves up unconventional quirk.
Left: Experimentalist Leah Stein sets work in unusual sites and collaborates with live musicians. Photo by Lois Greenfield, Courtesy Leah Stein Dance.