Philadanco (PIFA): Global artistry: four choreographers, one aesthetic

Republished by kind permission from The Dance Journal

philadancoga910x520As part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, world renowned and locally grown, Philadanco contributed with nights of first rate dancing to sold out houses.

I was particularly drawn to the program because the show was advertised as a celebration of Global Artistry; four choreographers from different countries setting works on the dancers of the company. Vietnam, Philippines, USA, and my birth land, Jamaica, were the countries represented and I was eager to witness these choreographic offerings.

Admittedly, I did have expectations.

I expected these works to be painted with colors from the country of their choreographer, for subtle cultural representations to waft through each piece, and for these four pieces to be different from one another in language and definitely in aesthetics.

Instead, I was served four contemporary works, swimming in the classical ballet vocabulary.

I’m not sure what I expected from the choreography in Labess, but Jamaican choreographer David Brown created a piece that could have easily been crafted by any one, from anywhere. From the Tunisian title to the soundscape provided by Belgian-Congolese performer Zapp Mama, very little movement vocabulary reminiscent of Jamaica was represented. Because of my connection to Jamaica (the land of Reggae music, people with the creativity to frequently produce new dance styles, and the brightness of costumes that accompany carnivals and Jonkanoo parades), the lack of adequate representation felt personal. Influences from dancehall to the more traditional Kumina, could have added to the body of the work but unfortunately, Labess was just another contemporary ballet.

Although peeved by the lack of island flair, a clever duet performed by the sturdy Adryan Moorefield and the dynamic Janine Beckles, reengaged me in the work as their chemistry on stage was evident. Moorefield partnered Beckles effortlessly, providing the support she needed in all her off centered positions.

The most classical of the night’s programming, Francisco Gella’s Between the lines (Philippines) was the perfect vehicle for displaying the technical proficiency of the Philadanco dancers. Gella transported me with scenic simplicity and elegant lines, but I never got a taste of the Philippines.

Choreographed by Vietnamese choreographer Thang Dao, Folded Prism opened with a clump of dancers floating in a sea of white. They swayed with uncertainty but moved as one before creating a vortex, pulling a female dancer into its center.

Initially, Dao’s choreography bordered on dull but then the work opened up room for conversations surrounding a topic of grave importance to some dancers.

After under going surgery, and now fuller than his former self, dancer Tommie-Waheed Evan sailed through the piece, parading a body that some may think has no place on stage. Although Evans has dealt with some physical challenges it was obvious that his training has outlasted his injury and that dancers come in many shapes and sizes. I applaud Dao and artistic director Joan Myers-Brown for supporting the viewpoint that performing should not only be reserved for those with classically trained ballet bodies.

Ray Mercer’s Super 8! (USA) was the appropriate high-energy piece needed to close the show. A colleague of mine for many years, Mercer’s vocabulary is heavily rooted in the contemporary aesthetic. So much so, that I kept searching the work for his personal voice. I saw all his influences but struggled to see his addition to a saturated.

One thing Mercer succeeds at is crafting beautiful duets that stay with you long after you leave the theatre.

In the second section of Super 8! Mercer constructed a duet of striking polarity. Dancers Moorefield and Victor Lewis Jr. played out a symbiotic relationship that was skillfully directed by Mercer. Always within close proximity of each other, their energy matched their ability to execute the many tricky transitions they were handed.

It would be sacrilegious not the mention Rosita Adamos who managed to score featured roles in all four ballets. While the other female dancers were quite capable, Adamos lithe body was the perfect vessel for versatility, unforced extensions, and technical exactness.

Maybe I took the title of the show too literal.

Maybe there were traces of cultural inspirations that were abstractly displayed and I simply missed them. Maybe I just wanted more than pirouettes and arabesques.

Maybe there was no need for these choreographers to pull from their heritage.

But what an opportunity to share cultures and introduce an audience to aesthetics unfamiliar to them.

Choosing to embrace a popular commercial aesthetic over exploring diverse movement potentials made the night of global artistry, one that could have been renamed “Four choreographers, one aesthetic”. Nevertheless, the commitment the company dancers brought to each piece was astounding, as they energized the audience, proving that even with some financial set backs, Philadanco will continue to influence the Philadelphia arts scene. April 15-17, 2016;

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