Philadanco!, a contraction of “Philadelphia Dance Company” (and sometimes referred to as ’Danco by insiders), is nearly five decades old. Founded during the early years of the National Endowment for the Arts and still directed by the indomitable Joan Myers Brown, it trains and develops dancers and choreographers who get rare year-round contracts but too often jump ship and join the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. This is both a tribute to Brown’s prowess and a problem for her troupe.
The current Joyce program includes dances from the past four years, three of which are steeped in the sadness of this country’s racial crisis. Christopher L. Huggins, choreographer in residence at Philadanco, offers the compelling but disjointed 2017 New Fruit, referred to in the notes as “a glimpse into the unchanged landscape of the cycle of sanctioned violence on Black and Brown bodies in America.” The first of its five sections, to Nina Simone’s searing rendition of the ballad “Strange Fruit,” is a solo for William E. Burden, who alternates in the role with Joe Gonzales. Against a projected backdrop of trees and barbed wire, and with a rope dangling down at one side, Burden anticipates an all-too-frequent fate: The section ends with the sudden appearance of the shadows of two hanged men on the treescape. Next up is hip-hop dancing by performers in hoodies and jeans, the adroit choreography shot through with moves from capoeira. Clifton Taylor’s lighting does a lot of the heavy lifting, with projections that might be high-rise projects or jail cells dominating the stage.
Dawn Marie Bazemore’s A Movement for Five (2015) approaches the events of 1989 leading up to the conviction and incarceration of the Central Park Five, teenagers and alleged sexual assaulters who were later exonerated and released. Much research, thought, and care has gone into the construction of this three-section piece, which opens with eight dancers moving to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Against a green cyclorama, it uses rudimentary but clear and powerful gestures to make its points. The second section, to solemn choral music, shows the five men writhing on the ground in Nick Kolin’s squares of light, paced by Joe Gonzales, like the others apparently handcuffed. The sad final vision, after their release, has the men, reunited with their mothers and sweethearts, falling and rising, communicating their suffering and loss.
Thang Dao’s 2016 Folded Prism breaks out of the malaise, prioritizing the visual over the emotional. Featuring nine of the troupe’s ten dancers in intriguingly detailed form-fitting white costumes by Natasha Guruleva, it privileges shape over meaning, letting the performers fold and unfold their long limbs, spiral their torsos, partner briefly, and return to the cluster shape with which the piece begins. Kolin’s geometric lighting design, using lots of side lights and casting colored shadows on the white unitards, amplifies the power of the movement. The dancers are technically strong, less aggressive than their cousins at Ailey, and engaging to watch.
The newest and blandest of this program’s works is Tommie-Waheed Evans’s 2018 With(in) Verse, which a note describes as “gospel as desperation.” Identically dressed in blue trousers and flowing gray shirts, eight performers often move in unison to a percussive score assembled from music by Signal, Loscil, and T.L. Barrett. A longtime company member, Evans collaborated with the dancers on this piece, which strikes me as too low-key, overbalanced by its sound score and Taylor’s dramatic lighting, alternately hazy and angular.
Lighting dark-skinned dancers is a rare talent, mastered by only a few and helped when all the dancers onstage require this special focus. Kolin and Taylor both have it down, making it possible to see the faces of these beautiful performers even when a work’s mise-en-scène calls for bleakness in the atmosphere.