Review: Philadanco

The dancers in Philadanco, a contemporary dance company from Philadelphia, have amazing talent.

They all have impeccable training, gorgeous balletic lines, acrobatic strength, and flexibility… but the company’s show at Willett Hall had some elements that were quite unexpected.

The final show in the Virginia Arts Festival Dance Series definitely had a strong start with Bolero Too, a brilliant, sultry ensemble piece with beautiful choreography by Christopher Huggins. The curtain opened to reveal stunning silhouettes of the eleven dancers posing in a line upstage with a bright red scrim glowing behind them; at that point, I thought “Here we go; this is going to be good.” And Bolero Too did not disappoint. The music by Ravel was a very repetitive melody, but the dancing was anything but repetitive. The dancers were in couples, the women in slim red dresses, and the men wearing white dress shirts and black tights. The choreography took them from partnering, to solos, to groups of women, to groups of men; the dancers never went off stage. Those not dancing maintained the line upstage, slowly moving and swaying to the beat. The piece had hints of humor, and touched on the varying dynamics of couples and relationships. The partnering was extremely demanding; the ladies were tossed easily over shoulders, around waists, and from one dancer to another. Despite the rather wild lift sequences, this alluring piece maintained its smoothness.

The second piece on the program was By Way of the Funk, by Jawole Willa Jo ZollarThe music began, playing a short excerpt of a song, and then suddenly– the sound of a shrieking record scratch. Then silence. This repeated many times, running through bits of songs like, “Blue Moon,” “Blueberry Hill,” “The Twist,” “Charlie Brown,” and more. The song selection was fantastic, but the jarring starts and stops of the music were quite disconcerting. Also troublesome to me was that the dancing did not reflect what was happening with the music; the dancers continued smoothly, at times dancing through the music and the silence as if there were no difference. The piece continued with more dancers joining in, until eventually the whole company was on stage. The only similarity among the costumes was that they were black, silver, or white; there were vests, dresses, tassels around knees, leggings, hats, wigs, sunglasses–the stage was overflowing with sparkles and sequins. The flashy costumes and the disjointed music were such a stark contrast from the opening piece that I found myself stunned. The music eventually settled into longer sections, and there were definite moments where the dancing and music came together well. The choreography was quite good, full of interesting patterns and combinations. However, there were so many distractions that the quality of the dancing seemed to get lost behind the shimmer.

The second act was made up of Elegy and Enemy Behind the Gates, which were both heavy, intense pieces that used a black backdrop and dramatic lighting.Elegy, by Gene Hill Sagan, was an engaging blend of lines and shapes connected with slow, controlled transitions. The program describes the piece as “a collage of statuesque, sculpted movements set in a mournful tone of emotions.” I couldn’t agree more; the sorrowful tone seeped through the theater as they danced, and the final formation was breathtaking.Enemy Behind the Gates, another piece by Christopher Huggins, centered on the concept of enemies living among us, and the difficulty of identifying them. The dancers wore black, militaristic costumes; the dancing was rigid, in unison and in canon by turns. The melancholy of Elegy was replaced with undertones of fear and anger. The pace increased as the dance progressed, reaching a frenzied level; it was controlled chaos.

The show had many strong points: the dancers’ skill, the music selections, and the high level of emotion infused in the dramatic pieces. The overall flow felt off, though; perhaps if the program were in a different order it would have felt more balanced and grounded.

This article was originally published on AltDaily in June of 2011.

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