Philadanco, by its very name — the Philadelphia Dance Company — embraces its hometown.
And if ever there was a dance company to love back, it's this one. The dancers are sublime, the works accessible, and some of the best American choreographers regularly make new pieces for Danco to premiere for Philadelphia audiences. When the company tours the world — it was most recently in Macedonia — it's as an art ambassador from the City of Brotherly Love.
The troupe opened Friday night at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater with a program called "The Philadelphia Connection." It featured a world premiere, Wake Up, by hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris, North Philly born and raised. Dwight Rhoden's Tribute was set to the sounds of Philadelphia International Records. The late Gene Hill Sagan, who choreographed Suite en Bleu, was once resident choreographer at Philadanco, and Ronald K. Brown's Gatekeepers, which opened the evening, was created for the company.
The dancers offered a wonderful — if perhaps not quite as electric as usual — series of performances. Best of all was the extreme variety of dance styles, from ballet slippers and chiffon dresses to hip-hop in sneakers.
Gatekeepers and Tribute both played to Philadanco's strengths, featuring divine balletic modern dance.
Gatekeepers is a somber but by no means depressing evocation of soldiers marching toward heaven. Tribute, at the other end of the scale, is a celebration of music and dance; in one particularly intriguing phrase, each woman leaned forward and raised her leg behind in an arabesque penché, then wrapped that leg back around her partner's neck, before he lifted and dipped her into a fish position.
Suite en Bleu is almost pure ballet, danced in blue chiffon and sparkles to Handel and Bach. All Philadanco dancers have strong ballet technique but the company's repertoire leans more toward modern, so it was fun to see them indulge their classical roots. Only wider steps on the bourrées, sharp arm positions, and occasion steps in parallel position gave the piece its modern twists.
Then the dancers turned things around, swapping their ballet slippers for sneakers and fluffy hairpieces for Afro wigs in Harris' premiering Wake Up, to the music of Afro-beat legend Fela Kuti. It offered hip-hop style, bright colors, and a festive atmosphere, but also a serious message — one that seemed to parallel Gatekeepers' end-of-life feel. As the piece opens, a dancer's character is shot. The door to heaven opens, but he gets one last look at the life he is leaving — a reminder to us all to wake up, to dance, violence, religion, Africa, family, the people around us, and all the small things that are, in fact, so vital.
Contact writer Ellen Dunkel at email@example.com.
Manon Lescaut Music by Giacomo Puccini, libretto based on "L'Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut" by Abbe Prevost. Conducted by Corrado Rovaris, production by John Pascoe, directed by Michael Cavanagh. Cast: Manon Michelle Johnson Chevalier des Grieux Thiago Arancam Lescaut Troy Cook Geronte de Ravoir Daniel Mobbs Presented by the Opera Company of Philadelphia at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Tickets: $8-$225. Information: 215-893-1018 or www.operaphila.org.