The curtain goes up on A Rag, a Bone, and a Hank of Hair, a ballet reconstructed for and performed by the Philadelphia Dance Company, and the audience senses from the opening minutes that they had better be prepared for an evening of soulful dancing. Talley Beatty’s energetic choreography; the pulsating music of Prince and Earth, Wind and Fire; and William Grant’s simple yet vibrant costumes all come together as the dancers move with hipster attitude showcasing well-tuned talent and skill. This is the spirit of Philadanco.
Founded in 1970, Philadanco celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Founder and Executive Artistic Director Joan Myers Brown is excited about the possibilities ahead. “When I began dancing there were few opportunities for Black dancers to dance professionally in Philadelphia, or anywhere else. So when I formed the company, it was built as a way to afford opportunities to youngsters that I didn’t have. Nowadays, it’s getting better. Just look at Broadway, there are four hit shows that predominately feature Black performers. The opportunities are on an upswing,” Brown says.
After high school and the ballet club in college, the Philadelphia-born Brown went on to study with Katherine Dunham and Karel Shook, two masters of the dance world. “When I worked with Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway, I learned about the entertainment and production components of a show. So those things along with my background in ballet and modern dance, I learned a lot,” she adds. “It’s important for dancers to learn the craft. And one of the things I also learned, which I share with the dancers, is to be reminded of the joy of dance. And when it’s obvious, that translates in the performance.”
During a recent Philadanco engagement at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts in New York, that obvious joy was apparent. Included in the evening’s repertoire was the New York premiere of a work choreographed by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder of the ensemble Urban Bush Women. Zollar’s By Way of the Funk celebrates Philadanco’s 40 years, with funk music by way of Parliament Funkadelic. The fluidity in the dancers’ shoulder and hip movements embodies the dynamics of contemporary dance, and in sections their circular arm movements pay tribute to West African dance influences. Rennie Harris’ Philadelphia Experiment is a reflection on the Black experience in Philadelphia with a hip-hop theme. In the minimalist Enemy Behind the Gates, choreographer Christopher Huggins incorporates elements of classical ballet and modern dance as dancers whirl in confrontational-like pairings, as the work was inspired by the idea of living alongside “enemies within our midst.”
“To have the dancers work with different choreographers and learn different styles is important to their study” says Brown. “It’s not just a challenge to them, it’s also good for the audience because they never know what they’re going to see next.” The company that began performing in schools and local churches and for several social organizations and community programs now performs nationally and internationally. The troupe just returned from touring in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
Brown reiterates that the commitment and mission of Philadanco is to empower our youth and to help them achieve success not only in the dance world but in their lives as well. “Dance has always been an integral part of our culture, and it’s important that we see it not just as an art form in our community.” she says. “I’d like to see that notion change because there is a value in the discipline and training of dance that can be relevant to parts of our everyday life.”
For more information about upcoming Philadanco performances, visit the company’s Web site at www.philadanco.org.