If you like your dance virtuosic, spiritually uplifting and socially conscious, don't miss Philadanco, now at the Kimmel Center. Founded in 1970 by Joan Myers Brown, this versatile 17-member troupe is Philly's most widely touring dance company. With good reason.
Seen here in works by Philadelphia choreographers Zane Booker, Gene Hill Sagan, and Rennie Harris, and in Talley Beatty's 1947 Southern Landscape, the company is eloquent in movement languages encompassing ballet, modern dance with African and Afro-Caribbean inflections, and all-out hip-hop.
The two choreographers with the deepest connections to the company are represented by works featuring ballet-based lyrical dancing. Sagan's La Valse, long in the company's repertoire, is a confection set to Ravel, and relies on the drama of a dark space and black swirling skirts.
Booker's In Between Time, a world premiere, highlights his ease with inventive partnering. Some mid-air shifts of direction evinced audible gasps of surprise. Set to brassy Chuck Mangione music, the piece is both well-ordered and heroic, with big buildups and subtler moments of walking or precarious but joyous balance.
Most striking on the program is the pairing of Beatty's historic masterwork with a new work by Harris, who might be seen as a contemporary equivalent. Beatty, formed under the tutelage of Katherine Dunham, embraced the movement of Africans in diaspora. Harris embraces movement coming from the streets; his mission is to honor hip-hop as an indigenous form of dance, distinct from its showbiz representation. Both artists grapple with issues of oppression and redemption, from Reconstruction times to today.
Philadelphia Experiment, a premiere, shows above all Harris's unquenchable appetite for movement. It's as if his innards won't let him stop rethinking a rhythm, finding a surprise slide, popping out or down, or slowly snaking around a wide hip circle. He plays his material out like a clever card shark, revealing just enough, then - wham! Gotcha. Unison groupings wash over the space, first hunkering low and understated, then getting brash and acrobatic as black-and-white videos of the Philly streets give way to saturated backdrop color.
Southern Landscape with the full company delivers movement of remarkable force and purity in a portrayal of post-Civil War former slaves. This reconstruction (initially in partnership with Bryn Mawr College and Temple University, with funding from Dance Advance), is now part of the NEA's American Masterpieces Dance Initiative. Its six sections, to spirituals and live vocal, include a jubilant "Ring Shout," with pliant feet and complex counter-rhythms, and the unforgettable "Mourners Bench," danced from way deep with stunning economy by Gary Jeter II.
Worth the ticket price alone is a raise-the-roof finale to what may be Aretha Franklin's most inspired singing ever, the hymn "Old Landmark" (not credited in the program). Beatty packs as much exuberance on the stage as it can possibly hold, with the women's frilly skirts flying in barrel turns and the assembly rising in split leaps to match Aretha's soaring vocals.