Unlike single-choreographer troupes, repertory companies tend to offer an aesthetic jumble, but not Philadanco! in its New York outing this year. The ample show divides neatly into two camps, which anyone familiar with Alvin Ailey – famous kin of this venerable Philadelphia ensemble – would recognise.
In one camp is the sleek and steely. Otis Redding proved popular without sacrificing an inch of his ragged depth, so why did The Wiz choreographer George Faison have to take the disco approach with the 1971 Suite Otis, to a medley of Redding tunes?
At least Matthew Rushing – for years one of Ailey’s most luminous and nuanced dancers and now a budding choreographer – does not betray Nina Simone in the premiere Moan, though he does not illuminate her either. Her androgynous, slightly impatient voice only elicits an incongruous mash-up of black-woman stereotypes: earth goddess spiked with sassy city girl. To be fair, his focus is less Simone’s voice or biography than her portraits of vexed love. Moan may owe too much to Ulysses Dove’s S&M-tinged ballets at Ailey, but when Rushing has the dancers pounce on one another and toss each other around, it is exhilarating.
Philadelphian Rennie Harris and Brooklyn native Ronald K. Brown are in the other camp. They favour a sensual inwardness over the hard sell. In Brown’s heavenly 1999 hit Gatekeepers and Harris’s recent Wake Up – which moves up and down the hip-hop decades until you’re persuaded the idiom is as rich and complete a foundation as dance could want – the spine relaxes, and the torso and hips loosen, as does the frame of the dance. Suite Otis and Moan signal their structure from the start – movement will match lyrics one song and dance after another – and the dancers fit the mould. Wake Up and Gatekeepers, in contrast, seem to unfold from the dancers, the dancing.
So individuals matter: Heather Benson, for example, who ends her phrases with an alluring diminuendo, and Chloé Davis, who creates beautiful harmonies between shoulder, belly and knee. The architecture of Wake Up, especially, is so unpronounced (at least until its abrupt, dogmatic end) that people took the dance for just dancing and began clapping along. Wake Up does not forfeit any of its appeal for being personal and deeply felt.
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