Philadanco
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

February 6, 2024 evening
From Dystopia to Our Declaration, Mating Season, Balance of Power, Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth

Jerry Hochman

Philadanco, the Philadelphia area’s venerable contemporary dance company, returned to The Joyce this past week, its first appearance there since 2018. I saw the opening night of its weeklong engagement.

The first time I saw Philadanco was a very long time ago when it shared a program of contemporary dance with other dance companies at a Broadway theater, when both of us were young. Time passes. Now, roughly 50 years later, both of us have changed. I’ve broadened my dance performance horizons, and Philadanco has become a major player in contemporary dance.

The only criticism I have is that the program’s four pieces, even though intended to be different from each other in subject and/ or process, and even though each dance was created by a different choreographer, turned out to be quite similar-looking: though they’re reasonably distinctive entities while watching them, they all accumulate in the mind as a crystalline blur.

On the other hand, the Philadenco dancers are a remarkably athletic group, exceptionally able to keep up with the speed, strength, technique required, stamina and partnering skills that stretch the boundaries of credibility.

Grace Kimble & William E. Burden
in Tommie-Waheed Evans’s
“Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth”
Photo by Julieanne Harris

The four dances presented were From Dystopia to Our Declaration, Mating Season, Balance of Power, and Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth, each of which was a New York premiere. The titles are accurate clues as to each dance’s subject. I enjoyed the program’s opener and closer most; the second and third were too much like exhibitions of a particular subject or style.

When I saw the title of the first piece, I considered escaping from the theater. I thought this was my only alternative to having to sit through yet another dance that mandates what must be done and/ or preaches to the choir. I knew I’d dislike it.

I enjoy being wrong (which has been happening with increasing frequency lately).

From Dystopia to Our Declaration, is a dramatic, intense dance that doesn’t focus on any one issue (though one is clearly detectable) that it pounds to death. Rather, I see it as a clarion call to action; an expose of largely unspecified unfairness that requires correcting.

The piece is choreographed by Nijawwon Matthews to a score by Dave August, a vocalist, composer, and music producer (per his Facebook page). This appears to be his first dance commission, and it’s not bad. Not surprisingly, it’s a pulsing, percussion-laden composition (which he titled “Dystopia Suite”), but there’s a welcome flow, at times even a sense of lyricism, to it, and it doesn’t come across as sterile as do some contemporary scores. Matthews is a well-traveled and experienced dance teacher and choreographer performing one and/or the other function at both Broadway Dance Center and the Joffrey Ballet School, as well as founding his own company XY Dance (a pre-professional company, according to the program). Matthews has melded his choreography seamlessly around August’s score (which isn’t unusual since it’s a collaboration), but he doesn’t follow every beat. His choreography, at least judged by this piece, is active and fluid, but with appropriate variations in focus and tempo that give the dance a patina of variety.

In terms of subject, the dance is the message rather than the message being the dance. By that I mean that From Dystopia to Our Declaration doesn’t beat the viewer over the head. It presents its position more subtly, although reasonably clearly.

Divided into six relatively fluid segments (I couldn’t always tell where one ended and the next began, except for the number of dancers involved), the piece opens in an interesting, albeit somewhat confusing, manner.  One man is seen under a spotlight downstage audience-left who appears to consider himself important and in charge of … something. As he slowly turns, one can see the outline of what appear to be chairs in the surrounding dim light. When the full stage is gradually illuminated, what appeared to be chairs are people – 15 dancers (there are 17 in the dance as a whole) – spread around the stage sitting or squatting on the stage floor, who soon begin to sway forward and back repeatedly, with the effort seeming to be more pronounced as this part of the piece progressed, and evolving in certain cases to examples of more agonized, but inwardly-directed, writhing.

Eventually, one of them – Raven Joseph, who becomes the focal point of the piece – stands and exudes intense discomfort about … something. I initially thought that the “something” would evolve into a womens rights issue, but the action on stage was more diffuse than that, focusing more generally on some sort of oppression rather than oppression affecting one particular group. That is, aside from the fact that all (or nearly all) the Philadanco dancers are African-American, the choreography doesn’t stress any particular African-American experience (although that may be the intended issue) – it’s refreshingly more universal than that. At one point in this opening segment, led by Joseph the dancers appear to look up to the sky as if saying “How long, oh Lord?”

After the subsequent segments further explore this generalized sense of oppression (one, titled “Black Mirror” and involving two women, would seem to evidence a more limited scope, but I saw nothing beyond that title to indicate that), when the piece concludes Joseph is pictured leading, or hoping to lead, the others out from the oppression – the generalized dystopian society – from which they suffer.

While From Dystopia to Our Declaration is relatively amorphous in its generalization, the subsequent dance’s subject area is crystal clear. Mating Season, choreographed by Christopher Rudd to original music by Loscil (excerpts from “Rohrschac”) and unspecified music by vocalist, songwriter, and musician Tariq Al-Sabir), is what its title says it is, although that title is somewhat disingenuous. What it looks like is a contemporary dance version of the Kama Sutra.

Mikaela Fenton and Mikal Gilbert
in Christopher Rudd’s “Mating Game”
Photo by Julieanne Harris

The piece consists of three couples (Brena Kashun Thomas and Floyd McLean, Jr, Brandi Pinnix and Christian Diyah Gonzalez, and Mikaela Fenton and Mikal Gilbert) who dart across the stage and ooze their way into a variety of examples of partnering and, ultimately, clearly erotic positions (with slithering bodies, legs around faces and faces around groins), transitioning (including, frequent, exceptional lifts) into the next position, and then either animating it (spinning or circling) or cementing that position before again moving on to another. At times, three dancers will form a … threesome, but that’s the exception.

This is definitely a dance rather than an exhibition, but the dance is a vehicle; the position, and the occasional holding of that position to garner applause, is the point. Neither gender is continually in a dominant position (although when acrobatic positioning is involved, the men do the lifting and control the positioning), and both genders appear equally emotionally uninvolved.

With this in mind, the choreography does exactly what it’s intended to do, as do the dancers. And the common costumes (multi-colored unitards that show – at least to me – as shimmering gold), designed and executed by Anna-Alisa Belous, are perfect complements to the stage action. Everything about Mating Game is executed very well, and seems to have been unexceptional for the dancers and the audience. Ho-hum.

The following dance, Balance of Power, is in a similar vein, but with a different choreographic subject – and like Mating Game, it telegraphs its punches. The piece’s title is cutely emblematic of the endgame here – balances and weight-shifting.

There’s more here than that: in terms of subject, there’s a hint of a battle for superiority between the genders; and choreographically the weight-shifting is usually executed in pairs, and there are many more dancers (twelve) populating the stage, and more unbridled movement than the program’s previous dance. And there’s a MacGuffin of sorts: a black jacket that the lead man (Floyd McLean, Jr.) passes among a variety of women, and later has the jacket removed from him by a woman, who shifts it to others or back to the initial wearer, but as performed it looks more playful than a power play. Balances and weight-shifting – some examples of which are quite spectacular – are the dance’s choreographic raison d’etre.

Brittany Wright
in Tommie-Waheed Evans’s
“Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth”
Photo by Julieanne Harris

The program’s final dance, Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth, is more transparent in its intent than any of the others. The program notes that the piece is dedicated to the memory of Debora Chase Hicks, a fixture at Philadenco for most of its life in multiple capacities (student, soloist, rehearsal director, and coach) who Dance Magazine described as a blue blood of the Black dance world, who passed in 2021.

Choreographed by Tommie-Waheed Evans (in collaboration with the dancers), the piece is much better than I initially thought it was as the dance progressed. I anticipated, wrongly, that it would be some sort of reverence, and I kept looking for evidence of mourning, or at least sadness, that wasn’t there. I was wrong. [Yet again.]

On the contrary, I began to recognize as it progressed that Somewhere between Heaven and Earth is a tribute and a celebration – an accumulation of exceptional dance components, presumably reflecting the impact she had on the company and its dancers. The dances themselves (all to a curated score consisting of five or more distinct pieces of unspecified music from different sources or composers) aren’t clearly connected to each other, but they’re collectively more bright-sounding and accomplished than the percussion-laden music through most of the earlier part of the evening. The piece flows cleanly and beats with a definitive pulse, and the dancers fly across the stage with increasing passion. And its ending, when the thirteen dancers gather center stage with arms outraised toward the heavens, is clearly heartfelt.

Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth may also serve as a general description of Philadanco: the choreography generally is thoroughly grounded, but at times, it soars.