Fall Concert Series

by Lewis Whittington

November 20-22, 2003 -- Perelman Theater, The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia

Philadanco returned to The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts after extensive touring to their home, the Perelman Theater. For the occasion, company founder and artistic director Joan Myers Brown assembled a stunning company showcase. The accent was on the male corps, with the entire second act performed by the men under the title "We too dance." The finale was an electrifying performance of "Blue," choreographed by Christopher Huggins just for this concert.

But, ladies first, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s "The Walkin' Talkin, Signifying Blues Hips, Sacred Hips, Lowdown Throwdown," a repertory favorite, was equally magnificent. Zollar’s trilogy, inspired by the graceful saunters of Jamaican women, of course, has much more than just walking. In fact, it has everything from quicksilver Afro-Caribbean skips to the most salacious pelvic grinds. Zollar wryly constructs a joyous essay of female allure and essentially constructs a feminist manifesto. It left both the straight and gay men in the audience panting and the women of all persuasions cheering.

The opening solo, "Batty Moves," slang for "Body Moves," a comment passed by a male admirer in Jamaica, was danced with cool fire (and some stiff transitions) by Dawn Marie Watson (alternating with Hollie E. Wright), stating the alluring themes. Then, "Soon Come," an adagio really, brings four women moving across the stage diagonally in a sultry snake line, each oscillating their bodies in their own individualistic way. Then the ensemble section, "Up in Here," features a saucy chorus line that time travels in poly-rhythms from Afro-Caribbean lore to "in the house" club girl attitude.

Just as things reach a fevered pitch, Joan Myers Brown saunters onstage dressed in a drop-dead black cocktail dress for a smoldering runway walk, showing the other girls a thing or two. As fun as Zollar’s hip-happy ballet is, it is also a dramatic body testament that documents the power of female form in motion.

The concert opened with one of the troupe’s great works "Elegy," which on this night was dedicated to visionary city developer Willard Rouse, whose philanthropy was key in bringing a new era to the performing arts and facilities evident on the Avenue of the Arts in Philadelphia.

"Elegy," scored to the somber music of Ralph Vaughn Williams and with dramatic choreography by Gene Hill Sagan, has the curtain rise on the backdrop of a galaxy of pinpoint lights framing a gorgeous trio. And the company executed Sagan’s unhurried configurations with ensemble amplitude and crisp sculptural phrasing, unfolded with noble grace. As Williams' strings surge, the dancers move in sweeping circles, each throwing downstage jetes and forming an end frieze suggesting crucifixion.

Next is "Sweet in the Mornin'," a solo choreographed by Leni Wylliams, to Bobby McFerrin’s song of the same title. Frequent Philadanco MVT Antonio Sisk (alternating with guest Zane Booker) commanded in Wylliams’ moving portrait of a liberated spirit in an oppressive society. Another short work, "Forgiveness," by Roger C. Jeffrey to music by Gil Scott-Heron, cast Christopher L. Huggins as a prisoner. His duet with a Bernard Gaddis as the "Ghost of Brother Past" expressed anger, guilt, and redemption.

" Back to Bach" was revised by Joan Myers Brown as a classic worthy of revival, but from its opening persistent string, the male corps was taut, even tentative. Eleo Pomare’s choreography was also at the mercy of a ragged recording of Bach, bad enough and made worse by speed distortions. The men looked strained, dressed in bone-white jumpsuits with torso cutouts, trying to hit their marks chasing Bach around the stage. Not helping at all was a distorted recording of the music. The opening sextet was crowded and uncontrolled, though the men were more focused in the trios and quartets that followed.

The male corps completely redeemed themselves with Christopher Huggins’ transcendent choreography in "Blue," so named as the color identifying males, a moving exploration into male physicality and psyche. Maybe the guys were saving themselves for the demands, skills and sweeping depth of this piece.

The backdrop of clouds introduces the cast, dressed in long silky blue tunics, in formations scored to music by Avro Part and ambient composers, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Philadelphian Steve Reich’s music. Huggins moves his dancers in crisp, lyrical patterns that give way to unadorned physicality, with razor-sharp turns and sudden drops, as the meditative moves to more aggressive, even angry themes of the male psyche.

At one point the dancers are suddenly silhouetted against blue light, and later the tranquility is lacerated with shafts of white lights as the men break away to separate solos, full of driven and glorious dance.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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