Philly’s 2020 fall dance season has abandoned all the rules
David Gordon's "Philadelphia Matter" and BalletX Beyond have set a high bar for digital dance programs. How to watch these pioneering works, and what's ahead this dance season.
Lucky for the rest of us, artists are unstoppable. In the face of seemingly insurmountable COVID-19-related restrictions, dancers have been working with filmmakers for the past six months to find exciting new ways to continue creating and sharing their creations. Thus, we can look forward to a surprisingly robust fall 2020 dance season, even as we are looking from home.
Two extraordinary, and very different, highlights of this season are available right now, online: The Philadelphia Matter, 1972/2020 by New York-based modern dance pioneer David Gordon (through Oct. 4, details at fringearts.com) and the first installment of BalletX Beyond (ongoing at balletx.org), an all-digital subscription series from the local contemporary ballet troupe.
In Gordon’s hour-long film, he collaborates with his longtime professional and life partner, British dancer Valda Setterfield, plus videographer Jorge Cousineau, to create a rich visual and aural collage, with images assembled into an ever-changing patchwork of various-sized rectangles that cover the screen — like a Zoom meeting gone berserk.
It centers on three of his signature pieces: Song and Dance (inspired by Gordon’s childhood love of Hollywood musicals), Up Close (an intimate, loving, and ultimately devastating duet made for him and his wife), and Chair (which evolved from the carefully calibrated exercises Gordon invented to help his wife recover from a terrible injury).
But the film also invites viewers to deeply explore some of the most basic questions related to dance on film: What are the differences between the filmed performance of a dance that was originally conceived for live theater and dance that was always intended to form part of a film? How about dance “numbers” in movie musicals?
For my money, although many of the visual effects in this film are entrancing, the most-effective segments are the one devoted to Up Close and a final sequence of Philadelphia’s own Amalia Colón-Nava giving it her all in a solo performance of Chair, outdoors, in the pouring rain. Unstoppable, indeed.
The BalletX Beyond program feels in some ways very much like one of this company’s in-person programs, featuring a quartet of world premieres by noted choreographers with varied styles.
New Zealand-based choreographer Loughlin Prior’s Scribble explores dance and animation, courtesy of Glynn Urquhart in an effective, fluid piece where the dancers seem to be moving inside a black box and “drawing” in the air, as though with a piece of white chalk. Dancer Andrea Yorita is a standout.
Penny Saunders’ Ricochet sets out to debunk the stereotypes of the American cowboy in a work filmed outdoors and set to classic country-and-western songs with witty costumes by Martha Chamberlain. The movement is clever — and, in some cases, angry. There’s even a horse.
Rena Butler’s The Under Way refers to the Underground Railroad, with both oblique and pointed references to the horrors of slavery. It’s an astonishing, devastating work and includes a surreal duet between Yorita and Zachary Kapeluck, along with desperate running by Roderick Phifer and Stanley Glover, two of the company’s Black dancers.
Caili Quan’s Love Letter weaves childhood memories of music, color, the ocean, and the indigenous Chamorro language from her early life in Guam into a marvelous cinematic tapestry in which dancers Francesca Forcella and Richard Villaverde, separated by physical distance, yearn for each other. It’s choreography is inventive, and the dancers show exceptional emotional and technical abilities.
Obviously, nothing can replace the excitement of in-person attendance, and viewers can only look where the camera lens is pointing. But on the plus side, we can watch these pieces in whatever order we choose, and as many times as we like, and the artists can do things on film that would not be possible in reality.
This first BalletX Beyond program and the masterful Gordon work point toward a digital season that may exceed staged-starved fans' expectations. It will be fascinating to see which direction other local dance companies explore in the upcoming season — and how those explorations might affect the work they produce once audiences can gather together again.
Here, some other highlights on this season’s dance calendar: Note: Pennsylvania Ballet has no live performances scheduled for the fall, but, at press time, was pursuing plans for a digital-only fall season.
Being/With: Home (Through Oct. 3.). (Online via Zoom, wait list for tickets at fringearts.com.) Long known to Philadelphia audiences from her time in various prominent groups, Nichole Canuso now works nationally and internationally, telling human stories in unexpected and moving ways. This piece connects two solo audience members, each in their own home, and is accompanied by sound design and “mysterious audio guides.”
Koresh Dance Company digital selections (Ongoing, free, at koreshdance.org). The troupe’s website offers short films by artistic director Roni Koresh in a collection called Hide Your Face/Unmask Your Heart: A Trilogy of Yearning for Normalcy, Justice, and Peace of Mind. The site also features a taped discussion with Koresh and distinguished Black dancers Zane Booker (ballet) and Raphael Xavier (hip-hop) concerning violence and systemic racism in the United States.
Caleb Teicher and Chris Celiz (Oct. 1, livestreamed at 7 p.m. from the Annenberg Center via AnnenbergCenter.org, $25, ticket sales end 30 minutes after start time.) Teicher is an extraordinarily gifted tap dancer who made his local debut in 2018. He returns to trade improvisatory riffs with the equally talented world-champion beatboxer Chris Celiz in this Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts program.
Live Out Loud (Screening 7 p.m. Oct. 2 at Smith Memorial Playground, rain date Oct. 3), 3500 Reservoir Drive RSVP at smithplayground.org.) In-person screening of a new documentary film that follows the bonds that develop among members of Pennsylvania Ballet II and students from the Overbrook School for the Blind as the young people work together to learn a technique new to all of them: tap dancing. You can also watch the film free (with audio description) at paballet.org/community-engagement-liveoutloud.
PDP Informance with Tommie-Waheed Evans (Oct. 14, 7 p.m., pay what you wish, livestreamed via philadanceprojects.org). The multi-award-winning dancer/choreographer established his own troupe, Waheed-Works, in 2006. In this Philadelphia Dance Projects “informance” he discusses his new project, Home, which deals with race and gender issues; he will also show rehearsal footage of this and other pieces.
Pam Tanowitz Dance (Oct. 15, livestreamed at 7 p.m. from the Annenberg Center via AnnenbergCenter.org, $25, ticket sales end 30 minutes after start time.). Known for her unexpected, inventive, and witty movement style, Tanowitz makes her Philadelphia debut with two works: Gustave Le Gray, No. 2 and Untitled, a new work developed in quarantine.
Dance-A-Thon Philly (Oct. 17, 6 p.m.-midnight via danceonphilly.com). Billed as “a benefit for the people who keep music and arts in our schools,” the event will be filmed live in a studio with a host, a DJ, and a three-person dance crew to guide the proceedings, with prerecorded segments and socially-distanced guest dancers.
Philadanco at Annenberg (Oct. 29, livestreamed at 7 p.m. from the Annenberg Center via AnnenbergCenter.org, $25, ticket sales end 30 minutes after start time.) One of this city’s most popular and impressive troupes, Philadanco celebrates its 50th anniversary season with a series of solos and duets. Philadanco’s celebrated founder/director Joan Myers Brown will do a post-performance Q&A.
Elba Hevia y Baca (Nov. 10, online at 7:30 p.m. via pasionyarteflamenco.org, free, donations encouraged). The Bolivian-born Hevia y Baca is a dancer/choreographer who founded Pasión y Arte, an all-female Philadelphia-based flamenco company, in 2000. Excerpts from performances and conversations will be shown.
BalletX Beyond Premieres (Nov. 18, 7 p.m. available by subscription to the company’s digital platform, $15-$30/mo., at balletx.org). This next BalletX program features new works by choreographers Amy Hall Garner, Robbie Fairchild, and Mariana Oliveira.
Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers (Nov. 19, livestreamed at 7 p.m. from the Annenberg Center via AnnenbergCenter.org, $25, ticket sales end 30 minutes after start time). The program features solos and group works — including a “world premiere surprise” from this company noted for its highly spiritual, poetic approach to movement.
Martha Graham Dance (Dec. 10, livestreamed at 7 p.m. from the Annenberg Center via AnnenbergCenter.org, $25, ticket sales end 30 minutes after start time). The company will present excerpts from the iconic pieces Appalachian Spring and Dark Meadow, plus the full solo work Ekstasis.