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Flash Review 2, 5-9: Filling the Senses
Philadanco Thrills New York

By Darrah Carr
Copyright 2002 Darrah Carr

NEW YORK -- In a recent interview with Tom Jacobs of the Santa Barbara Scene-Press, Joan Myers Brown, founder and artistic director of Philadanco, explained her programming choices: "You want a program that builds, so that by the end of the evening, people are feeling really good. You don't want to bore them to death." The success of this simple guide was evident Tuesday in the opening evening of Philadanco's New York season at the Joyce. After watching several heady but intriguing pieces by Bebe Miller, Jawole Willa Jo Zoller, and Ronald K. Brown, the audience received a shot of adrenaline as dancers catapulted fiercely across the stage in the New York premiere of Christopher Huggins's "Enemy Behind the Gates." Spontaneous applause broke out and, by the end of the piece, the audience was on its feet, not only feeling good, but obviously inspired.

Set to a driving score by Steve Reich, 'Enemy' maintained an unflinching athletic intensity throughout, as if Huggins had started in high gear and kept his foot right on the pedal. This was dancing at the extremes, with splayed penchees, furious chaines, and large lifts. The highs weren't wild, though. They were reached through absolute technical control, as the dancers combined passion and precision into a sense of bottled rage. The flickering shadows, deep red burn, and stark white heat of William H. Grant III's lighting design amplified the frenetic emotional quality.

Emotions were tapped more subtly in "Exotica," an excerpt from Ronald K. Brown's evening-length "Lessons." As explained in the program notes, the piece began with a judgment parade, moved to a testimony of compassion, and then returned to a contemporary plea. So subtle were the changes in movement, however, that if you hadn't read the program notes, the jumps from pop music to traditional ballads would have seemed disjointed. Brown created sweeping, densely layered phrases. The dancers spun with their chests arched open to the sky, dropped deftly to the floor, and executed Brown's signature double attitude jump, legs kicking backward in an attempt to fly. Nevertheless, his spatial design was not nearly as inventive as his phrases. The majority of the last section, for example, was executed in two lines, sometimes juxtaposed, but often in unison.

Philadanco's program also included two works from a previous presentation entitled "Messages From the Heart," notable in that it originally featured dances by four female choreographers. The first of these, Bebe Miller's "My Science," was a thick, messy dance. Not that it was unpolished; rather, it was messy in a full, all encompassing way, as if Miller had taken the top off a blender, and rich, tasty movement had flown everywhere. The dancers bounded on and off stage, meeting in energetic duets and trios, the rate of change of interactions being almost dizzying at times. Allegedly based on the collision of matter and the mechanics of relationship, this dance also seemed to contain an emotional subtext that played on tension and uncomfortability between the sexes.

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar's "Hand Singing Song" was the other offering from "Messages from the Heart." The extremely well-crafted, thought provoking work used as its source material a range of gestures from the pedestrian (nagging finger) to the political (the dap, or hand to fist greeting of the Black Power movement). The ability of the dap to inspire solidarity was exemplified during one scene in which a lone dancer approaches a group of bickering bystanders. Demonstrating the dap stage left, he convinces a cluster to follow him. They proceed center stage, then stage right, eventually amassing a determined, unified whole with clenched fists in the air. Zollar also explored the individuality inherent in the expression of hand gestures. Toward the end of the piece, the dancers lined up single file, each taking his or her opportunity to demonstrate a gesture which is then extrapolated into full body movement. Some are funny, some serious; the last was particularly charming, moving from cradling a baby to tracing up a sexy leg to blowing a kiss.

Philadanco performs through Sunday, May 12th at the Joyce. For more information, please visit the Joyce web site.

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