On a frigid February evening there's a sizzle in the air at Philadanco's West Philadelphia studios. Hope Boykin has kindled the dancers' fire.
A drop-dead-dazzling mover who performed with Danco from 1994 to 2000, Boykin has been a member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for nine seasons. She is using a brief furlough from the Ailey 50th Anniversary Tour to rehearse Be Ye Not, the new work she choreographed for Danco, a highlight of the company's Kimmel Center program next week.
"Make a decision, and stick with it!" "Just be clear about what you know, and the rest will fit!"
So she exhorts the dancers as she prods them to move in her special style - taut, quick, asymmetrical, grounded, percussive, and at the same time ecstatic and exhilarating. In verbal and body language she relates to the Danco dancers like a big sister on leave from her day job, spending quality time with the family and showing them her stuff.
Boykin's ties with executive artistic director/founder Joan Myers Brown are unbroken even though she has moved on - in Danco lingo, she's "gone without the 'e'." She's here to give back to the community that launched her career and continues to nurture her. Boykin describes Brown as "one of the biggest supporters I've ever had, next to a parent."
Between December and April the choreographer has had four intensive rehearsal periods with the company. Like all company rehearsals, everything is filmed by Debora Chase-Hicks, another "gone without the 'e'," who began as a Danco dancer, performed with the Ailey ensemble from 1981 to 1990, then returned and has been Danco's rehearsal director since 1992. Using the videotapes, her attendance at rehearsals, and her sophisticated movement intelligence, Chase-Hicks is responsible for keeping the work alive after Boykin has departed.
Seventeen minutes long and set to music by the Ahn Trio, Be Ye Not is a minimalist story dealing with insider/outsider, loner/group encounters. Boykin hopes to show that "there's a person who is searching for something, because being alone is not an option at this time. But then you realize that the group you're in isn't maybe the group you should be in. . . . "
With a cast of five women and four men, one woman - at various times played by Odara Jabali-Nash or Dawn Marie Watson - can be set off as odd one out. This work, on these dancers, is very Philadelphia, quintessentially Philadanco, and the epitome of urban-tough "attitude." Jabali-Nash wears this mood like a second skin, exuding a hot chill as leader; Watson plays the softer, vulnerable role.
In describing a lift for these two women, Boykin urges, "You're just gonna run and jump, like you're jumping a fence and you just don't care. Then I'll give you the movement." (In the same spirit, she quips, "If I had anybody standing someplace, and I told you I was gonna put some movement to it, please remind me!") Later, she muses aloud, "This last section has to be more aggressive - not the movement, but the intention."
That's Boykin, and the organic, space-conscious way she approaches dancemaking: Get the overall feel and attitude of the movement, then go back later to fill in the holes. And let the intention drive the shape.
It's interesting to watch this diminutive powerhouse choreograph on the company that weaned her. She knows its dancers' hallmarks, dynamics, traditions, and techniques - what works for them. She knows that "Danco-ites" are daredevils, practicing breathtaking lifts at breakneck speed again and again until they get it right. Rather than marking movement, they dance full out during rehearsals, a practice that helps set the correct spacing, timing, and energy. But to do so requires a daring spirit, the men challenged to catch the women again, again and again, the women daring to trust that they will be caught yet one more time.
With recent changes in personnel, the men are uniformly long, lean, wide-shouldered 6-footers. The women, all about 5-foot-6, are slim and strong, shouldering long, sculpted arms and riding on compact legs. There's a ballet-seasoned quality here, and these thinking bodies are sponges absorbing Boykin's movement. Their easy camaraderie, combined with mindful presence and focused awareness of the task at hand, is thrilling. When they "get" it - the lifts, timing, attitude, intention - a quiver of excitement fills the room.
Boykin gets a kick out of her creative process and is a born performer. Jiving and playing with her creation, she demonstrates how particular steps should be danced, so that a sense of joy is locked into the movement. Refining and tightening, adjusting the timing to make it flow, tweaking here, teasing out there, she gives the work its final shape. She makes subtle enhancements - a "signifyin' " neck-head gesture to be done only when the dancers move to the right; a way of hiking both arms in a high, open V so the shoulder blades kiss down the back.
Commanding Watson to move "not harder but fuller," she demonstrates on her own dancing body. To make her point, and calling this quality "Hope-esque," she poetically and poignantly moves with Watson - around her, behind her, next to and circling her, pulling and pushing her, while coaxing and encouraging her with word cues as well. These specifics are keys to the Boykin style.
About working with Danco, Boykin says she knows the territory: "I know what it's like to be here. I am a 'Danco Doll'! Once you're a Danco Doll you're always a Danco Doll - you have the mentality, the work ethic, the drive of a Philadanco dancer forever. I feel like everything that I've learned here has prepared me for whatever is to come."
Boykin's work appears on a program with three other innovative new choreographers - Zane Booker, another former Danco dancer and artistic director of the Philadelphia-based SLJ Arts Initiative; Camille Brown, a former member of Rennie Harris Puremovement; and Tony Powell, Washington-based dancer, choreographer, filmmaker, and visual artist.
Philadelphia's eponymous dance company is a cultural treasure. When it performs at New York's Joyce Theater, the house is sold out weeks in advance, and overseas its renown is at least as potent.
"I remember the first time we went to Germany" in 1992, says Kim Bears-Bailey, former dancer and now assistant artistic director. "They knew about us before we stepped off the bus, before we even set foot in the theater. In Dusseldorf we got off the plane, and people were at the airport with posters saying 'We Love Philadanco' - and we'd never even been there before!"
Joan Myers Brown adds, "I think the thing that's most different performing in Europe is the encores and the applause . . . you're getting eight and 10 curtain calls." Plans are afoot for a European tour in 2010, when the company celebrates its 40th anniversary.
And, from the looks of things, next week's program may find the Philly audience on its feet as well, shouting for more.