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By Chelsey Philpot

Financial down-turns throughout history have shown that even in a tough economy people do not stop going to movies. Why shell out twelve bucks for a blockbuster? Why pay too much for butter-soaked popcorn and boxes of candy large enough to induce a sugar coma? The answer: Sometimes we all need an escape. Just to watch a matinee, people are willing to pinch on the grocery bill and forgo buying coffee.

Last Friday at Boston’s ICA, Philadanco, the Philadelphia Dance Company, provided that needed escape. With their unique blend of performative vigor and anatomical dexterity, the Philadelphia-based dance troupe delivered a Boston audience from the cares of reality. When Philadanco dancers smile during a sequence of frenetic gyrations or pause to look coyly at the audience they are not being cute. Rather, Philadanco dancers are not afraid to dance for dance’s sake; their expressions are reactions to the beauty of their whirling gestures. Their movements radiate joy; their smiles say “isn’t life grand?”

Joan Myers Brown founded Philadanco in 1970 in order to provide black dancers an open door when others were shut. Since then she has made her company into a cultural ambassador for “The City of Brotherly Love.” At the ICA, Philadanco performed unique pieces from their repertoire. Though each performance deserves to be examined in its own right, the Philadelphia Experiment and Enemy Behind the Gates, linger in the mind long after the dancers have left the stage.

Rennie Harris, who has been called “the ambassador of hip-hop,” blended of hip-hop, modern and street dance when he choreographed Philadelphia Experiment. Inspired by the social, political and economic history of the city of Philadelphia, the piece starts as a lament but ends with elation. The dance begins with dark photographs of impoverished black men and women projected on a white screen but once the images stop, the celebration begins. With the men clad in saffron-colored pants and the women in gauzy, one-sleeved dresses, hip-hop overcomes the modern movements. The women’s turns become barely contained and their leaps end with flat-footed smacks. Expressions throughout are fierce, but when a dancer breaks into a sly smile you know they know they’re hitting every move with the deliberate clamor the choreographer demanded.

The only sign that the nonstop energy of Philadelphia Experiment taxes the dancers at all is the glistening sweat on the men’s bare chests and women’s foreheads. This piece spotlights Philadanco’s strongest members - when one female dancer gyrated her body faster than a margarita in a blender the audience went crazy - but it also exposes some dancers’ weaknesses. (When a whole troupe is moving nonstop, a dancer even half a beat behind has to work twice as hard to catch up.) Nonetheless, the energy of this piece is down-to-the-muscle contagious; it takes a certain amount of will power to stay seated when Philadanco makes moving look so fun.

Enemy Behind the Gates, the last piece of the evening, was far more somber than Philadelphia Experiment, but no less affecting. Choreographed by Christopher L. Huggins, this piece about “enemies within our midst” debuted September 10, 2001. In sharp contrast to the bright costumes of the other three pieces, the dancers wear black militaristic outfits decorated only by two vertical rows of shiny gold buttons. Like an army in training, the dancers move rigidly. The female dancers still reach their willow arms with grace and the men still leap like gazelles, but their precision has a dark undertone. Enemy Behind the Gates is as chilling as it is poignant - this final piece of the evening is a sharp reminder of how quickly suspicion can become paranoia and fear xenophobia.

I had the good luck to leave the ICA building the same time as the dancers at the end of the evening. One dancer held the door for me and as I walked through I told another, “You were wonderful.” She looked down as if embarrassed, shifted her athletic bag, looked up and said, “Thank you.” Movies might offer an escape, but an evening of watching Philadanco offers an experience. Dance at its best presents beauty and hope.


The Institute of Contemporary Art

Philadanco performed at Boston's ICA. The performance was presented by CRASHArts.

All images are courtesy of Philadanco and Lois Greenfield.


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