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Philadanco

By Eva Yaa Asantewaa

The Joyce Theater
New York, NY
October 2–7, 2012
Performance reviewed: Oct. 2


The Joyce becomes a hothouse, sprouting whirling azaleas, when the men and women of Philadanco, clothed in hot pink and cranberry, showcase Suite Otis. This George Faison work, from three whole decades ago, seems as if it were made yesterday. Never mind the age of those Otis Redding classics or that any run-of-the-mill troupe could easily handle the sassy snaps, high kicks, hip-pumping, and skirt-swirling as well as the by-now clichéd, cutesy bickering between dance partners Chloé O. Davis and Justin Bryant. These dancers bring everything they have, everything they are, to each movement of this picturesque suite.

If there’s fun to be had, Philadanco will have it. But if there’s deeper purpose, these performers will clarify it, underscore it, and make you pay attention. I was pleased to see how they apply themselves to Gatekeepers, a Ronald K. Brown ensemble piece from 1999. For this work, Brown envisioned, he says, “soldiers walking toward heaven, searching for the wounded and looking-out to make a safe haven for others to follow.”  Philadanco’s dancers have got this figured out, managing to look both soldierly and heavenly. They take meticulous care with Brown’s complex, demanding musicality–an unpredictable, delicious way of timing and highlighting movement that erupts from anywhere in the body and works the entire body. It’s as if they troubled to clean all the windows onto this dance’s soul because they care.

But even one of America’s top troupes—and Philadanco is certainly that—can’t cover for uninspired design and choreographic infrastructure. Presenting the world premiere of Moan, an ensemble work set to Nina Simone songs, Ailey superstar Matthew Rushing (here in the role of choreographer) showed us fresh ideas and fully-developed drama in only one of its six sections. In “Don’t Explain,” a steamy duet for Roxanne Lyst and Justin Bryant, Lyst pours herself into her character, a wronged woman who knows all too well “what love endures,” holding nothing back. She repeatedly, pitiably abases herself, opening her body to her cheating lover. She is unable to resist pawing his back even as he glides away. Yet, in the end, she wins her gamble, reclaiming firm, if quiet, power over a man as shamelessly addicted to her as she is to him.
       
Last season, Rennie Harris’ Home hit a home run for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Now Wake Up, introduced to New York by Philadanco, argues for sending Harris out on a mission to inject new life into troupes of all kinds. Wake Up—which draws inspiration from the creativity and self-definition of Black and Latino youth, the phenomenon of hip hop, and the Afrobeat of Fela Anikulapo Kuti—has a funny way of restraining its dancers while freeing them. I noticed Harris’s tendency to hold them in place like a chorus line, aligned along a horizontal grid (a spatial arrangement altered, now and then, as some come or go offstage) while keeping their bodies bubbling to Fela’s irresistible rhythms. What at first seemed restrictive eventually struck me as being quite apt: Proud, foxy dancers, each one saying, “This is me” and “I am here” and “This is what grounds me.”


Photo by Ayodele Casel, courtesy Philadanco. Pictured left to right are Rosita Adamo, Ruka White, Lindsey Holmes, and Tommie- Waheed Evans in Matthew Rushing's Moan.

 

Philadanco continues at the Joyce through Sunday, Oct. 7.