It was like a Broadway show met a festive family reunion Saturday night when Philadanco launched its 50th anniversary at the Merriam Theater.
The program, called “Genesis,” was meant to honor three choreographers whose work spanned Philadanco’s history. But it also was a homecoming for four generations of dancers, both on stage and sprinkled throughout the audience, all of whom trained under Joan Myers Brown, now 87.
The evening opened with works by the three talented junior companies, which can have dancers 8-23. We rarely see them on the main stage, and it was a delight to watch their development.
The most famous alumnus, Leslie Odom Jr., said he was the worst dancer in the room when he studied at Philadanco. But he did all right for himself, performing in Rent at 17 and later winning a Tony Award as the original Aaron Burr in Hamilton on Broadway. For his one-night appearance Saturday, he sang “Without You,” from Rent and Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” Philadanco alumna Hope Boykin danced to his songs. She performs with Alvin Ailey and has choreographed for both companies.
The main company opened with Exotica, a section from Ronald K. Brown’s longer work Lessons. Set to the music of musicians including Wunmi (who also designed the costumes), it is a serious piece about judgment and facing fear. But on this celebratory day, it could also be read like a study in dance, with pedestrian steps evolving into jumps and more complex movements.
Milton Myers’ Love 'N Pain, set to songs by Aretha Franklin, added to the Broadway feel Odom brought. A work for the women of the company, it also seemed to be more about love than pain on Saturday. The dancers demanded and got “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” as is deserving of a company led by a woman for decades. Another woman who has long led the dancers got her star moment in the opening section, Kim Y. Bears-Bailey, an alumna and assistant artistic director of Philadanco.
Enemy Behind the Gates, set to music by Steve Reich, is about the enemies that live among us and how we must protect ourselves. The costumes are militaristic, the movement modern and stark. But there’s beauty there, too, from the red linings of the skirts both genders wore to the bond created when the group — including Philadanco alumni — moved as one.