Philadanco, looking ahead to its 50th anniversary in 2020, is turning introspective.
In December, the company danced a program based on its history. This weekend at the Kimmel Center it is focusing on its legacy – former dancers who have become choreographers — in a program called Success Stories, which opened Friday night at the Kimmel's Perelman Theater.
Executive artistic director Joan Myers Brown calls the choreographers "my kids," whatever their success. This week's group includes Anthony Burrell, who won a VMA for choreographing Beyoncé's Formation; Hope Boykin, who also dances with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; Tommie-Waheed Evans, who teaches at University of the Arts and is artist in residence at Philadanco; and Iquail Shaheed, who has his own Philadelphia-based company, teaches in various places from New York to Australia, and has danced with many major companies.
The "kids" focus on many similar themes, including oppression (Shaheed and Burrell), spirituality (Boykin and Evans), and use of percussive music (Shaheed, Burell, and Evans). Three of the works were created for this program; Shaheed's was a company premiere.
All were successful to varying degrees. The most powerful was Burrell's Endangered Species, based on the stories of black men who were shot by police and set to music by Darryl Hoffman and Max Richter. In red jumpsuits (designed by Project Runway contestant Emilio Sosa) bearing the names of Trayvon Martin, Philando Castille, and others, six Philadanco men dance a hip-hop infused piece describing the hope, confidence, and tragic deaths of the men. One by one, each is shot, dying in the others' arms. But Burrell doesn't leave it there. The men return to dance the characteristics that might have lived: strength, brotherhood, power.
Boykin's Testimony: Evidence Given by a Witness (for Talley) is danced by a quartet of women in white and set to spirituals by Fisk Jubilee Singers. It runs after the intermission following Burrell's piece, but could be a companion piece – the struggles, missteps, and public confessions of the women of the community. It is a beautiful, soothing piece that has the women hearing and supporting one another.
Like Burrell's work, Shaheed's piece is about oppression, but of women. It is a collaboration between Shaheed and composer Dylan Ezzie, described in the program as sharing "a vision of using their work to enact social change."
The piece also feels like a woman being initiated into an organization against her will. In the end, she stands up to her oppressor. Much has been written about male choreographers speaking for women, and in some ways this feels like more of the same. But ultimately, the dance was powerful and beautiful, and the oppressed need all the support they can get.
Evans' piece suffered a little by being the final one of the evening, offering quiet drama at a time in the program that called for a celebration of the success stories. Drab gray and blue costumes didn't help his "With(in)verse." But the dance, set to a sound design by Jon Baldwin, and using music by Signal, Loscil, and T.L. Barrett, included solos, duets, and group sections and was lovely.
The program at times felt unbalanced, making me wish a long-established choreographer had been among the mix. But it is a credit to Joan Myers Brown and Philadanco that so much good work carries on beyond the West Philadelphia studios and the Kimmel Center.
Through Sunday at the Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St. Tickets: $30-$49.