Shut Up & Dance 2014 benefit for MANNA proved one for the books. Every year the performance is typically wonderful for a number of reasons, primary among them its great sense of Philly community spirit in support of MANNA and not the least of which is the esprit of the participating dancers. Some years are standouts artistically and this was just one of those years.
For the third consecutive year Ian Hussey, principal dancer at Pennsylvania Ballet, was producer-director, with PB corps member Alexandra Hughes his “right hand woman” he told the crowd. Their creative team presented a cohesive evening of performance and choreography representing many styles. Doubly impressive because the Dancers of the Pennsylvania Ballet, have a much heavier schedule this year in the midst of the company’s 50th anniversary.
There were rumors that ticket sales were down, but the Forrest Theater was all but sold-out, attracting a diverse crowd dance and nondance fans, multi-racial, straight and gay, academics and club kids,et al.
A reflection of the continued belief in the work of MANNA (Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutritional Alliance) continues to expand its mission delivering free meals every day to clients living with HIV-AIDS, cancer, diabetes and other debilitating illness.
WXPN radio host Michaela Majoun introduced the dances and MANNA executive director Sue Daugherty spoke passionately to the commitment of MANNA’s administrative and volunteer staff. Drag performer Brittany Lynn, in mile-high platform, belted out an intermission number, delighting the crowd while getting them to open their wallets, “I don’t know why I’m here… I don’t shut up or dance,” she quipped.
It would be inappropriate to ’review’ the choreography or the performances in the regular sense because this is a benefit performance, but important to note the performance and choreographic achievements. This year also marked the first time that several of the pieces had live musical accompaniment.
The benefit is famous for its boffo and topical openings and Hussey faced having to top the last two years. For the 20th anniversary a flashdance re-shoot of all of the poster art and last year’s Showgirls opening was hilarious- this year they didn’t even try to top those, the troupe did a short skit about the Olympics revisiting the craziness of the Tanya Harding shoelace episode. The only thing that made it worth it was seeing Jermel Johnson as Nancy Kerrigan stumbling around on roller skates in an Ikettes wig and mini-dress that kept riding up.
Immediately upstaging that mess was Harrison Monaco’s beguiling quartet Sorellanza, danced by – Elinor Hitt, Rachel Maher, Elizabeth Mateer and Alison Pierce- dancing to music by Brooklyn Rider. Monaco devised breezy pointe work and economic group configurations following dense string surges, meanwhile, the blue flowy skirts by Martha Chamberlain, showing the dancers’ fine ballet line.
It was followed by the equally involving M.A.P. by Alexandra Hughes a pas de deux narrative of a breaking relationship, danced by Leah Hirsch and Alejandro Ocasio, set to a dirgey orchestral by Ludovico Einadi. Instant dramatic chemistry established by this couple and Hughes tells their story in uncomplicated movement intimacies.
Next, jolting everyone out of their seats was Destino by Shelby Paige Glidden, with a troupe of eleven men from the University of the Arts. Glidden’s lucid choreography kept blooming with theatricality in a symbolic narrative about unity, support and challenging times. The razor sharp unison work is laced with lyricism and athletic beauty throughout. The students are under the dance tutelage of former PB principal dancer Michael Sheridan, who, along with Leslie Carothers, Nick Stuccio and Kelly Moriarty founded Shut Up & Dance in 1993.
Tango Sonata a solo for Amy Holihan by PB apprentice Craig Wasserman was scored by his father Ron Wasserman, who is a cellist for New York City Ballet. Holihan sauntered onstage locked in on the salon musicality and didn’t need to wait for a tango partner to be the sultry vamp. Michael Scales accompanied on piano and Luigi Mazzocchi, from PB’s orchestra played violin, his signature rich tone, bathing the Forrest.
‘Thread’ a song by singer Joshua Thomas who sang and played the piano live was choreographed by Hussey, with wit and whimsy for two couples. Ballet X dancer Colby Damon’s piece Let Me Live, scored to a song composed by Julia Hill, who sang in front of a five-piece orchestra. Chloe Felesina also was partnered with Hussey and their characters have a hint of turmoil, but they are ready to work it out apparently, expressed by tight body contact and other fun movement.
Chasm a stylish b&w dance-film noir by Candice Lauren and Courtnee Owens, filmed moving around and above PB’s Daniel Cooper and Adrianna DeSvastich, dancing to their own choreography to music by Radiohead and showing how erotic ballet moves can be. Another strong duet by Kansas Ballet dancer-choreographer Travis Guerin, who also composed the music danced by Alexandra Hughes and Jessie Sani, was uncomplicated duet on two beautiful dancing bodies.
Eleone Dance Theater was onstage for the show’s boffo finale, reprising excerpts from choreographer Tommie-Waheed Evans’ ’Suite Mercy’ his version of Carl Orff’s ’Carmina Burana‘ that just grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Evans’ unlocks the rhythmic pulse of ‘O Fortuna’ and the Eleone dancers. just keep upping the ante with breakneck velocity, and arresting ensemble technique. Most dynamically, Evans laces in Africanist dance idioms in transitional phrases that burned the floor and tore this house down.
The finale was the event’s signature piece, Mikhail Fokine’s Dying Swan, scored to music by Camille Saint-Saens, originally made famous by Anna Pavlova. Many PB ballerinas have put their stamp on it over the years and now PB corps de ballet dancer Laura Bowman can be added to that list. Bowman was reflexive to the accompaniment by Patricia Wolf on piano and Sam Quiggins on cello. She had micro variations in those iconic wavy arms, belying the swan’s distress. Otherwise, Bowman held luminous classical carriage, and, not to mention, flawless pacing.