Philadanco’s popular holiday show, Xmas Philes, has never been long enough — only 30 minutes when it premiered — or danced often enough for fans’ taste. Audiences eagerly look forward to the witty, delightful piece, which is performed every few years.
Choreographer Daniel Ezralow first created this suite of dances for the company in 2000 and has added extra vignettes a few times over the decades. Philadanco founder Joan Myers Brown would promise in postshow talks that, one day, Ezralow would expand it into a evening-length work.
That day is Thursday.
That’s when the company will premiere the full-length work at the Annenberg Center as part of a yearlong celebration around the city leading up to Philadanco’s 50th anniversary.
Brown, who turns 88 on Christmas Day, kept her vow before she steps away from the day-to-day work with the company in the spring.
Xmas Philes first came to be when Brown was looking to commission a new work and Philly dance impresario Randy Swartz recommended Ezralow.
The choreographer had danced with Lar Lubovitch, Paul Taylor, and Pilobolus and was a cofounder of Momix, which Swartz had brought to Philadelphia venues for decades. The idea was an alternative to the Nutcracker.
“With no mal-intention for E.T.A. Hoffmann [the German writer whose novella inspired that ballet] and Tchaikovsky, the Nutcracker is overdone,” Ezralow said late last month by phone from Toronto, where he’s been working on a Broadway-style musical version of the movie Bend It Like Beckham.
Xmas Philes was partly named for the city. “I was just getting to know Philadelphia [in 2000],” he said. “The X-Files was a big program on TV. It sort of made sense.”
As part of his research, Ezralow collected a lot of Christmas music, thinking “this is going to be fun.” Every singer records covers of the popular songs, he noted, “from older artists like Frank Sinatra to new ones like Adele,” so he had a lot to choose from.
This year’s additions are vignettes set to Vince Guaraldi’s music from A Charlie Brown Christmas. Ezralow said they’re "a little more cinematic” than the vignettes he choreographed years ago.
The earlier ones that remain in the show include a Rockettes-style “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” scene, “12 Days of Christmas” with one dance phrase representing each day’s gift, and one where the dancers spell out Xmas Philes with their bodies, Pilobolus-style. None of the old numbers has been cut.
The show is a wonder. Even in 2005, when it ran just 40 minutes, the dancers had 30 costume changes. Now it is 70 minutes, plus a new 20-minute intermission.
Yet instead of Xmas Philes, Philadanco very nearly got The Grinch.
“I had just come off working on [How the Grinch Stole Christmas] with Ron Howard," Ezralow said. He’d choreographed the movie and thought it would be fun to translate it to the dance stage. “But the [Theodor] Geisel estate wouldn’t give us the rights to do the work.”
Instead, Ezralow threw himself into the greatest hits of the winter holidays. As he started working with the Philadanco dancers, he asked them about their own traditions and their thoughts about Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah.
Inventive, physical, athletic
“I don’t know how you would define my choreography,” Ezralow said. “A few terms that come to mind are inventive, creative, physical, athletic.” His studied Martha Graham technique in college and was influenced by many different styles, including MTV videos in the 1980s.
He has his own company, Ezralow Dance, and has choreographed for the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics, as well as the Paris Opera Ballet, Cirque du Soleil’s The Beatles LOVE, and Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
“At this point, my style is ‘whatever comes,’ ” Ezralow said. Along with Bend It Like Beckham, he is also juggling work on a Paris show with the fashion designer Issey Miyake, the 70th anniversary of Italy’s Sanremo Music Festival, and a tour with his own company.
“If I could be accused of something, I’m an eclectic stylist," he said. "It would be like Misty Copeland whipping off a triple tour [a pirouette] and then doing some krumping.”
He arrived in Philadelphia on Tuesday to rehearse with Philadanco and attend Thursday’s premiere.
He also recently made time for a quick visit home to Los Angeles, “making sure the backyard didn’t burn” in the wildfires that came as close as 100 yards to his property. “It was a war zone. It was as close as you want to get.”
Ezralow said he loves coming to Philadelphia to work with Philadanco and Brown, who he doesn’t believe will fully retire.
“Every time I get the chance," he said, "I’m touched by osmosis.”
Philadanco in Xmas Philes
7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut St.
Information: 215-898-3900 or annenbergcenter.org