In 2020, Philadanco will be 50 and its Philadelphia School of Dance Arts will be 60. So, although in most years we get to see Philadanco dance at home only twice, in the 2019-20 season, there will be a third chance.
There is something to look forward to in each program, which founder Joan Myers Brown and the Kimmel Center announced Tuesday, including a reunion appearance by Philadanco alum Leslie Odom Jr., who was the original Aaron Burr in Hamilton on Broadway.
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The fall program, on Oct. 5 and 6, at the Merriam Theater, is called “Genesis” and will feature three ballets: Enemy Behind the Gate by Christopher Huggins; Love and Pain, a tribute to Aretha Franklin choreographed by Milton Myers; and Exotica by Ronald K. Brown.
Philadanco alumni will perform in Love and Pain. Odom, who trained at Philadanco’s Philadelphia School of Dance Arts, will sing in the Oct. 5 show.
After the Oct. 5 performance, there will be a benefit in the ballroom of the Academy of Music, where Philadanco held its first gala, in 1972. Odom will sing at the benefit, where he and actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, one of Broadway’s original Dreamgirls (who is married to Pennsylvania State Sen. Vincent J. Hughes), are honorary co-chairs.
On Dec. 12-14, Philadanco will move to the Annenberg Center for an expanded version of one of the most fun holiday performances in dance — and one that hasn’t been performed in several years. Xmas Philes is a suite of dances by Daniel Ezralow that is charming, hilarious, touching, and well worth seeing.
The 50th anniversary season will wrap up in the spring with a program called “Fast-Forward” April 17-19 at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater. It will feature several new ballets, including a co-commission with Toronto’s Dance Immersion. There will also be pieces by Vietnam’s Thang Dao, Ray Mercer (a choreographer who has also performed in The Lion King for more than 15 years), and emerging choreographer Kathy Smith.
One of the preeminent black dance companies in the United States, Philadanco was founded in 1970 — just a year after Dance Theatre of Harlem — and was part of an early movement in black dance. The school opened in 1960, two years after Alvin Ailey launched his Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Brown, 87, is considered something of a mother to dancers in other black companies. When Alvin Ailey and Dance Theatre of Harlem were visiting Philadelphia on the same weekend in March, 40 dancers from both companies gathered at the studios on Philadanco Way in West Philadelphia to toast their collective mentor.
Brown has said she will step away from the company after the 50th anniversary festivities conclude in 2020. She has put hundreds of thousands of her own dollars into the company, and a succession plan has not been nailed down.
She has been honored with three honorary doctorates, a Master of African American Choreography medal from the Kennedy Center, and the 2012 National Medal of Arts, a commanding piece of hardware on a purple ribbon given by President Barack Obama at the White House.
In addition to her company and her dance school, Brown is the founder of the International Association of Blacks in Dance, which will hold its 32nd annual conference in Philadelphia in January in conjunction with Philadanco. Along with performances, panels, and classes, the conference will include the fourth annual audition for dancers of color, which Brown established to help black dancers get jobs in ballet companies.
Brown has said that her initial dreams were to become a ballet dancer but that in the 1940s, there were no jobs for black ballerinas. So she got married and started dancing in nightclubs, in top shows with Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis Jr., and Nat King Cole.
There were few options for black children to even train in ballet. So when life on the road got old, Brown opened her school, initially teaching her mother’s friends. To cover her bills, she continued to dance in Atlantic City six days a week, even while teaching.
Six years later, she had enough students to be able to teach full-time. Four years later, the students began looking for jobs, and Philadanco was born.