The dancers of the 35-year-old Philadanco are a beautiful lot—strong, limber, passionate, up for anything. Choreographers tend to want to challenge them physically, to intoxicate us with the play of long limbs and soaring bodies, but in commissioning repertory, director Joan Myers Brown keeps the spiritual in mind too.
In Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Between Earth and Home, seven of the company’s strong women move like an scrappy avian flock. They surround the fierce outsider soloist (Hollie Wright) with pecking heads, arms crooked into wings, chicken walks. Their aim is an enigma; they toss her from the group, then yank her back. Each “lectures” her with a solo dance while Brenda Gray’s florid lighting turns the sky red. I guess she’s redeemed, kneeling while Abbey Lincoln’s voice rolls out “when I’m called . . .” The others return, nice to her now, and she leaps into the wings. Are these demanding guardians who prepare a wayward soul for heaven? It’s not quite clear.
Geoffrey Holder aims to make heaven (and the loss of it) very clear. His Ballet: The Blues and the Bible: Genesis presents Adam and Lilith, Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel as characters in a simple, colorful storybook tale, surrounded by fauna out of African ritual (magnificently designed by Holder, who also wrote the music), but with a smidgin of jazziness. Creatures with horns and phallic tails parade past in the shadows below the starry sky of a pretty sexy Eden. We first view Adam (Gary W. Jeter II) as a muscular naked torso, butt in the air, but Lilith (Odara N. Jabali-Nash), nipples painted on her body suit, isn’t having any (she’s ejected from Eden just as she was omitted from the Bible). Three antlered creatures watch Adam and Eve (Dawn Marie Watson) in coital embraces (did I hear a coaxing male voice say, “Come on, girl!”?).
A snake in silver spangles, an apple tree that looks like a fertility god on stilts, a black-masked angel for the Expulsion, a giant painted eye that oozes a tear in the final moment—the design treats are many. The drama, however, leeches away in the rivalry between Cain (Jeter) and Abel (Corey Baker) and the slaying of Abel. Whatever reason Holder had for having the same dancer play Adam and Cain, the result of the casting was that Adam disappeared from the story at a crucial moment.
Ronald K. Brown’s dances always speak of devotion. I’m not talking of the Christian beliefs that crop up in his choices of music or themes, but the soul power of the dance steps he creates—steps that ally the dancing with the hard, yet resilient African earth. The pumping, swinging arms; the bent-kneed stances; the sliding, pounding feet bring the performers’ spirit up close to the skin. As is often the case with Brown’s pieces, the premiere, For Mother (celebrating many strong “mothers,” including Philadanco’s founder-director Brown), seems to go on too long and dissipate some of its impact, but it’s rich in complex beauties, like the opening solo for tall, gorgeous Mora-Amina Parker. Brown can always make us see dancers as real people with real thoughts.
Lynn Taylor-Corbett gives her Everything is Everything, to music by Lauryn Hill, subtitles like “Lost Ones” and “Zion.” But what the piece mostly shows you is big, glamorous dancing with, say, bold catapulting males (to rapping) and softer, more sensually aware women (milder music) as the “lost.” There’s a love duet, elegantly performed by tall Warren B. Griffin III and Jabali-Nash, in which Taylor-Corbett creates some intriguing maneuvers around clasped hands. Dawn Marie Watson shines as an endearingly peppy show-off who hankers to be a star. Jeter, Baker, and Ashmad M. Lemons pay attention and drop her into a split to help out. And a dance-to-beat-the-band finale elicits the planned-for applause for its winning performers.