Dance Exploding

DanceBoom!’s “African Threads” weaves a stunning tapestry of movement.

By Merilyn Jackson
For The Inquirer
Posted Feb. 2, 2009


If Africa is the origin of human life, it is also the origin of language, art, music and dance. As Philadelphia’s most renowned modern and Africanist dance writer and scholar, Brenda Dixon Gottschild, writes in her elegant DanceBoom! catalog essay, “African culture [and its] seeds pervade our daily lives from basketball to ballet and beyond Broadway.

“Africanisms are not a choice,” she writes, “but an imperative that comes to us the way electricity comes through wires.”

With a dozen dance groups, this year’s DanceBoom!, called “African Threads,” at the Wilma Theater offers a stunning array of Africanist-based dance works. There can be no stereotyping of Africanist dance. It is everything from traditional rite-of-passage dances to the celebration of hip-hop, Caribbean, jazz-inflected ballet, and cool tap.

“We looked at all the compass points of where our diaspora resides,” DanceBoom! curator Nick Stuccio said. “Koresh Dance Company is very interesting to us as they are rooted in jazz, but also [choreographer George] Balanchine was such a fan of African dance and first shocked ballet audiences when he introduced bent wrists and thrown-out pelvises like you’ll see in Agon.”

The key word to learn at this festival is polyrhythmic, a term that ties this festival together. The dancers and choreographers throw the word around as easily as they swish their hips while bobbing their shoulders to contrapuntal rhythms. (“The polyrhythmic dancing body may carry one rhythm in the feet plus one or more additional accent patterns in other body parts,” Gottschild writes.)

Audiences can sample from the festival’s following five groupings spread over different nights through Feb. 6.
Rennie Harris Puremovement

Rennie Harris Puremovement will start the festival off on its hip-hop head, hands and feet with a pastiche from the repertoire and add a premiere that Harris says “expresses the souls of inner-city African American and Latino communities.”

Lisanga Ya Bana Kin Philadanco or Odunde Kulu Mele African American Dance Ensemble Joan Myers Brown, America’s most formidable heroine of African American dance, will have her 35-year-old Philadelphia Dance Company (called Philadanco) perform the riveting trio from Alonzo King’s Steal Away, in which a woman dissolves into despair under the weight of slavery while her two male partners fail to save her.

Philadanco will perform only on Sunday and Tuesday, with Philadelphia’s Odunde appearing on Feb. 4 and 5 to teach audiences social dances of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.

Kulu Mele’s steely artistic director, Dorothy Wilkie, is North Philly-born and -reared, and melts into sweet smiles when the dance takes over her body. Her company will present three dances, including a solo called Amazon War Dance by guest artist Djian Tie from the Ivory Coast.

Congolese choreographer Mufulu Kingambo Gilonda, who has been living and working in Philadelphia for 15 years, will perform with his company, Lisanga Ya Bana Kin. They will perform Gizembe, about two regions in the Congo that “have to learn to get along.”
Koresh Dance Company Pennsylvania Ballet Merian Soto

Roni Koresh describes his Negative Spaces as a cabaret.

“It’s all urban jazz-influenced, almost done like a minstrel show, but all the dancers are in white face,” he said. “Once you put on a mask you can do whatever you want.”

George Balanchine made his 1957 masterpiece Agon with an awareness of the era’s racial tensions. He set a major male role on Arthur Mitchell, at the time the New York City Ballet’s only black dancer. Now Meredith Rainey, one of several black dancers in the Pennsylvania Ballet, profoundly inhabits the role he dances with principal ballerina Arantxa Ochoa.
Merian Soto changed her The Art of Improvisation program at the last minute, recycling a title from a show last year, What’s Heart Got to Do With It, a structured improvisation duet for dancer and musician.
Tania Isaac Paule Turner / court Charles Anderson / dance theatre x A phenomenal dancer from St. Lucia, Tania Isaac explores the “cultural schizophrenia” of living in a strange land.

“We jump-cut our lives every day,” Isaac said. “You become adept at shifting from one personality to the other, depending on who you interact with, and that is implicit in my work.”

For DanceBoom! she has streamlined an earlier work, home is where I am… .

In the belief that shock is the best route to awareness, Paule Turner presents the fourth and final section of Touched, the 25-minute “Hitting Bottom,” with his company of six dancing in the nude. Turner has been working with dramaturge and author Don Belton on this explosive multimedia show for more than a year. With the Ku Klux Klan and a beheading in the piece, Turner hopes to show that the world can survive such atrocities.

Charles Anderson is black and gay, and known for big works with magnificent male dancers. Here, however, the cast of Parables of Mutants and Madmen consists of 18 women, with live music.

“Being a member of a historically marginalized group, I’ve always identified with superheroes and their dual identities,” Anderson said.
Germaine Ingram Kariamu & Company Eleone Dance Theatre

DanceBoom! will often move you to tears, but nothing else can make you weep like Nina Simone’s songs. Germaine Ingram, Philly’s top tapper, has refitted three of them for her new show, Nina’s Laments. A jazz quartet interacts with the three women dancers, and Ingram shows segments of her ground-breaking video, Plenty Good Women Dancers: African American Hoofers From Philadelphia.

Kariamu Welsh’s company of seven astonishingly gifted dancers will perform the Jamaican-influenced Sankofa-Ja! and The Museum Piece, a work that harks back to when Sarah Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus, was displayed throughout Europe, and arcs through the American objectification of black peoples.

Eleone is a title made up from its founder’s name, the late E. Leon Evans. Its 13 finely tuned dancers will perform a lyrical work by codirector Shawn-Lamere Williams to Bobby McFerrin’s “Sweet as the Morning’s Flow,” innovative choreographer Christopher L. Huggins’ Highway, and The Movement by Wayne St. David.

“African Threads” includes a talk on “The Rise of the Tango” by Robert Farris Thompson, art historian and Yale professor, on Feb. 5 at 10:30 a.m. Odunde, a Philadelphia organization that promotes African culture, will give dancing lessons on Feb. 4 and 5. And a dance photography exhibit called “Roots and Threads” will run from Feb. 3 through April 17 at the Open Lens Gallery at the Gershman Y.

Slam dunks from Philadanco

Merilyn Jackson, For The Inquirer

Posted: Saturday, April 19, 2014, 1:08 AM




Adryan Moorefield and Janine Beckles of Philadanco.

The program included a mix of newer and older pieces.
To a packed house, Philadanco brought back Donald Byrd’s 1995 BAMM at its spring offering at the Kimmel’s Perelman Theater Thursday night. I first saw it in 2004 with the now-retired force of nature Odara Jabali-Nash as the center of its centrifugal force. This time, six dancers revolve around veteran company dancer Roxanne Lyst like numbers on a spinning clock.

The missing hands of this no-tick-tock clock are Mio Morales’ quick-pulsed percussive score, which ultimately hurls the dancers from the circle and into various patterns around the stage. The men walked off and on stage ramrod-stiff, almost militaristic. But the spitfire Lyst remains in control, leading the others through Africanized, hunched-over skipping. Their fists pumped to the floor, pushing their shoulders up in synchronized rhythms.

It was such a sweet surprise when many of the same dancers came out next in Gene Hill Sagan’s ballet Suite en Bleu, to the music of Handel and Bach, which, with its metronomic formalisms, mirrored Morales’ score. Lyst, Rosita Adamo, and Janine Beckles, in soft hyacinth-blue gowns and ballet slippers, flared out their skirts in their tours, Tommie-Waheed Evans, Dwayne Cook Jr., and even the towering Adryan Moorefield lifting them joyfully as if they were flowers.

The company premiere of Ulysses Dove’s 1984 Bad Blood, to Laurie Anderson’s “Gravity’s Angel” and “Walking and Falling” and Peter Gabriel’s “Excellent Birds,” seemed a little off-kilter on opening night. This normally sure-footed company did not yet have the piece in its belly, where they need it. It is a furiously brutal work about the search for connection through physical impact. I could see Beckles cross herself before running out from the wings to throw her spread-eagled legs around one of the men who had to take her impact without faltering. I have no doubt they will ultimately devour the piece with their typical fierceness.

That hunched-over Africanist skip returned in Rennie Harris’ 2007 Philadelphia Experiment, only this time as a ghost of itself, haunting us from the centuries of slavery where even the muscle memory diminishes. Evans ferociously spurred the full company through its paces past Philly’s darker moments – shown in a video collage by John Abner – to embrace the joy and fulfillment that hip-hop and dance bring to many of us in Harris’ paean to our city. With so many slam dunks throughout the show, I wanted to jump up and shout: BOOMSHAKALAKA!

A Tale of Lost Luggage

by Merilyn Jackson

This story first appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer
Sunday, August 12, 2001

Krakow, Poland. The indomitable Joan Myers Brown and her dance troupe, Philadanco, are no strangers to travel. In the 90s, they collected baggage claim checks from Turkey, Italy, Germany, Canada, and the U.K. Last year took them to a dance festival in Korea, which Brown allowed “had its difficulties but was one of the best tours ever. Travel has two objectives: to introduce the company to new audiences and allow the dancers to experience different cultures.”

In July, Philadanco found a lot more about how the new world is ordered after spending ten challenging days in post-communist Poland. The company was invited to perform at the Eighth Annual International Contemporary Dance Conference and Festival in Warsaw and two outpost cities, Poznan and the host city, Bytom, located in the economically depressed coal-mining region of Silesia.

For many Poles this was a new exposure to a high-profile Afro-American troupe whose repertoire ranges from vernacular dance to stylized modern ballet. Responses ranged from multiple curtain calls to remarks from arts cognoscenti with expectations of more edgy choreography from an American company.

But choreographer and director of the Silesian Dance Theater, Jacek Luminski, was not necessarily looking for edge when he visited Philadanco and Baryshnikov’s White Oak Project (administratively based on Rittenhouse Square) in Philadelphia last October to engage them for his two-week event. White Oak was to open the festival and Philadanco to close it, with companies from around the world in between. “I wanted Polish audiences to see these two very different streams of American dance,” Luminski said. “Philadanco is an extreme contrast to American post-modern dance, dancing with such joy. Just right for our gala finale.”

For the 16-member Philadanco troupe, the road to the finale near Bytom ultimately proved more frustrating than joyous. Just getting to Poland was a tricky dance. LOT Polish Airlines, which flies direct from Newark to Warsaw, refused to discount tickets for their party of 16. They had to take a more circuitous route.

At De Gaulle airport, a baggage handler’s strike snarled every process from baggage transfer to passport control. When French officials required an unanticipated visa from dancer Francisco Gella, who holds a Phillipino passport, company manager, Vanessa Thomas, refused to leave without him. Suddenly, Cisco saw their bus, flew down the steps and boarded before anyone could stop him. The troupe followed, arriving in Warsaw just a couple of days late.

Unfortunately, costumes for three of the four works on their program didn’t make it. On the six-hour drive to Poznan, they discussed how to deal with the missing gear.

“OK,” said Joan, tackling the program in order. “The women have their dresses for Echoes (an Alvin Ailey tribute). The men will have to dance in T-shirts and jeans.” Warren B. Griffin III, the tallest of the troupe, and some of the other men protested. “J.B. (the dancers call Ms. Brown, JB or Aunt Joan), how are we gonna dance in jeans?”

“You dance in jeans at the clubs,” she said firmly, “you can find a way to dance in them on stage.”

Gene Hill Sagan’s glamorous La Valse could not have been danced in casual jeans. Fortunately, the waltz-length gowns and the jumpsuits for Cisco Gella and Antonio Sisk made it. At the first performance in Poznan, three petite dancers, Tracy Vogt, Allyson Tripplett, and Willa-Noel Montague, entered swirling in black chiffon, and when Cisco and Warren leaped out, a rustle went through the sedate audience which applauded in Soviet-style unison.  Dr. Grazyna Czarnecka sat next to me and it seemed her favorite, “Very romantic ballet,” she said, “but dark and thrilling too.”

David Brown’s marvelous fluted tunics for Labess II accent the dancer’s flow, but only their briefs were on hand. Unflappably, Brown and the piece’s dancers, Odara Jabali-Nash, Hollie Wright, Tracy Vogt, and lead dancer, Dawn-Marie Watson, raided an open-air market before the first show. “We found four little dresses similar to the wine-colored briefs and took scissors to them,” Brown said. The men danced bare-chested, only in their briefs.

Each of the tour’s three performances closed with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s 1998 celebration of the Black Power Movement, Hand Singing Song. Program notes described it as “Afro-Amerikanow-style Solidarity.” All the costumes but the black hats for this dance were lost too.  “Everybody just go to your luggage and pull out anything black,” Brown commanded.

Michael Wimberly’s jazz-based music underscored the ‘60s-period themes, but the dancers worried that Polish audiences wouldn’t get the text and gestures. Ahmad Lemons, the troupe’s powerhouse dancer, had just heard rap sung by a Polish group, and quipped, “It’s the first time I understood the words!” Jazz, gospel, and rap are very popular here.

In Warsaw, Philadanco drew four curtain calls, jeans and all in Stalin’s gift to Poland, a hideous building called the Palace of Culture. The audience responded enthusiastically to the dancer’s exaggerated street walking and upraised fists. Warszovians joke that the Palace is Warsaw’s best address, because from there you can’t see it. An intimidating Communist-era staff still runs it; its priority is to maintain order, not to be helpful or hand out programs. In other festival venues, staff wasn’t able to prevent theft in the dressing rooms – dancers from Israel were robbed backstage in Krakow.

Philadanco’s last concert was in a theater in a small town near Bytom. Like a frontier town, the host city, Bytom, has public drunkenness, a sizeable red light district, few restaurants, and only one grimy hotel – ill-equipped for the likes of Brown, her mostly African American troupe, and Baryshnikov. (A van whisked Baryshnikov and company to an elegant Krakow hotel an hour away.)

Walking through Bytom’s main square, some of the Philadanco dancers were called monkeys and animals in English by people who also threw things at them from a window above. New York’s famed LaMama Theater founder, Ellen Stewart, visiting a concurrent theater festival in Poznan, was similarly insulted while being refused service in the Sphinx restaurant there.  (Stewart is also black.)

“Without me,” the unescorted and shaken Stewart said just after fighting off pickpockets on the train down to Katowice and the dance festival, “Polish dramatists like Grotowski and Kantor would not be known in the United States. I was the one who brought them there.”

Poland’s high-culture is stuck in the 19th century, but with a technological foothold in the 21st century, the country has had to make whimsical compromises, “to touch down in the 20th century in only ten years time,” as some here say. The nation teeters between old-time socialist rules and new world service economy in sometimes charming, sometimes discomfiting ways.

The dancers’ initial conceptions of Poland ranged from informed to impressionistic. Kristen Irby, a soft-eyed young man, attended Pulaski High School in hometown Chicago. Lighting designer, Melody Beal lives near a major Polish neighborhood, Greenpoint, New York, so both were familiar with the most ubiquitous Polish foods like sauerkraut and pierogi[cq] and the sound, if not the meaning, of the language. But most of the group, who range in age from 18 to 32, had a spotty knowledge of Poland. Willa Noel-Montague holds a B.S. in psychology from Temple University and just returned to the troupe after a six-month scholarship at Columbia University. “I imagined it was all countryside,” she said, “like the Poland Springs water label.”

Romnee Marisa Hayes, at 18 the wide-eyed freshman of the troupe, said that she liked, “how open Warsaw is, with the tall buildings spread apart by parks and wide streets.” She didn’t know the streets were widened after the Nazis destroyed it, block-by-block.

This tender, but very mature group decided early on to visit the concentration camp at Auschwitz, a short drive from Bytom. “We were all divided at first,” said Odara, “but then we decided we might never get back here and that we should go.” Tracy Vogt, from Erie, PA, had Polish grandparents and learned for the first time, that besides the Jews, many Poles, gypsies and homosexuals were also murdered there.

Throughout the trip, Brown mentioned her own German-Jewish grandmother. When the guide told them that you’d have been taken here for having a Jewish grandparent, she said, “My God, I’d have been killed on two counts.”

Asked how she’d evaluate the trip, Brown said, “In Poland, we saw how they still live with their terrible war experiences and economy, but also their centuries old architecture and churches, their foods, their great shopping. The racial slurs are to me universal prejudices, often fueled by film and television. It is never an expected overt action, but it happens all over the world. We just live it. Despite this and the travel problems, we took back important and good memories of Poland.”

This story ends with a Philly twist. At press time the costume trunk was still missing. “Last time we heard from Air France, it was back in Paris,” said company manager Thomas. “To be sure it got here, we thought of asking them to put it on the same plane with Ira Einhorn.”

Everybody dance!

By Merilyn Jackson

For The Inquirer

Although deep into work with the Philadelphia Dance Company and her own dance school, Joan Myers Brown saw a problem that she could not ignore.

Back then, in 1988, Brown also served on the board of Dance/USA (a national service organization based in Washington, D.C.). She noticed that such dance organizations were not interested in audiences of color, and they really did not want modern dance, preferring to focus on major ballet companies.


Posted on Sat, Apr. 17, 2010

By Merilyn Jackson

For The Inquirer

We often speak of Philadelphia treasures, and Joan Myers Brown has been one of the city’s most valuable assets for the last 40 years. Forty years!

As founder and artistic director of Philadanco – the Philadelphia Dance Company – her reach here and around the world has won her fond acclaim, including this year’s Philadelphia Award. Thursday’s 40th-anniversary opening performance at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater portended nothing but more smooth sailing for this helmswoman and her brilliant company.

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