Like a Christmas gift you can’t wait to unwrap, Philadanco’s full-length Xmas Philes debuted Thursday night at the Annenberg Center, and it’s a very special holiday treat — an update to a charming piece presented for only a few days every few years, and only in Philadelphia.
Over the course of about 70 minutes, choreographer Daniel Ezralow gives the Philadanco dancers many styles in which to display their clean, diverse technique, set to many pieces of Christmas music.
The dancers deftly take on contemporary, stepping, Broadway, hip-hop, and tap. One section is based on the movie Men in Black. Others riff on children’s excitement, Santa and his reindeer, and the bustle of the holiday.
It’s fun to see the serious company break lose into what is primarily a comic work, but with a few sober sections as well. They impress both in slower sections that require technical precision and in those that blend colorful costumes and speedy footwork that could easily get messy.
Xmas Philes hangs off a loose narrative, the dream of a man (Tony Harris Jr.) who sleeps on a park bench while snow falls on him. For most of the piece, we are left to ponder whether the scenes that follow are his dreams or what is actually happening around him as he sleeps.
The piece first debuted in 2000, and Ezralow has filled it out with new vignettes over the years. This time he turned it into a full-length work, adding two new sections, interstitial music, and an intermission.
This year’s additions come after the intermission. Both are set to Vince Guaraldi’s music from A Charlie Brown Christmas, and they open the second act. They also tie in Harris’ role a little more.
The first new vignette is a skating scene, the dancers taking long strokes and then whipping into little spins. It is colorful and delightful, although nothing that seemed to be missing from the previous incarnation.
The second is a dinner scene. Here, Harris’ character is invited in as the dancers hug, pray, eat, and fight. At one point, the table is turned on its side so we can get an amusing overhead view. Some dancers lie on the ground, both sitting at the table and holding it up. Others take their place on top.
They’re not the strongest vignettes in the piece — the standouts are one where the dancers spell Xmas Philes with their bodies and another with 12 fast dance phrases set to “The 12 Days of Christmas” — but these newcomers tie the loose narrative together a bit more and bring in new aspects of the holiday season.
Like The Nutcracker, Xmas Philes requires more dancers than are employed by the main Philadanco company. So we get a glimpse here of the future as the younger dancers in the D/2 Apprentice Company and the D/3 Youth Ensemble take the stage to help flesh things out.
All blend in smoothly in the larger scenes and when the main company dancers step away for their many quick costume changes. That’s a hopeful sign for the future of the Philadanco, which will go through many changes in the spring after founder Joan Myers Brown steps down from the day-to-day business.
Yes, this year’s Christmastime dance calendar is already busier than most. Along with Pennsylvania Ballet’s annual Nutcracker, BalletX’s fall series includes two new holiday pieces. Numerous schools and smaller companies are presenting shows as well. But try to fit this one in.
Philadanco in Xmas Philes
2 and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut St.
Information: 215-898-3900 or annenbergcenter.org