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Steve Sucato | November 21, 2023
Philadanco! (The Philadelphia Dance Company)
Playhouse Square – Mimi Ohio Theatre
November 11, 2023
By Steve Sucato
Absent from DANCECleveland’s dance card since 2006, Philadanco’s triumphant return to Cleveland Saturday night at Playhouse Square’s Mimi Ohio Theatre begged the question, why did it take so long to have them back?
Presented by DANCECleveland and Tri-C Performing Arts, the 53+-year-old Philadelphia-based modern dance company kicked butt in four uber-energetic group dance works that had Mimi Ohio Theatre audience members on the edge of their seats.
The company of twelve dancers was off to the races from the opening curtain and kept that pace throughout beginning with choreographer Francisco Gella’s Seasons (2022).
Set to composer Max Richter’s recomposition of Antonio Vivaldi’s familiar “The Four Seasons,” Seasons six sections took their thematic cues from Gella’s interviews on what the four seasons meant to people. The full company moved through busy unison choreography on themes ranging from anticipation to jubilation that had audience eyes darting about the stage to take it all in. Angular arm movements, the twists, and turns of familiar dance steps unfolded like the inner workings of a watch whirring with mechanical motion.
It wasn’t long before dancer Mikaela Fenton drew the audience’s focus squarely on her. First in a pas de deux that had her legs drawing half circles on the stage floor before her partner lifted skyward to cinematic strains of violin music, and then in a captivating solo where she moved through a succession of leg lifts, turns, and pumping arm gestures ending this time with only a glance of recognition heavenward suggesting thoughts of remembrance and tribute.
Fenton’s remarkable talents as a dancer and her riveting stage presence pleasingly were also featured in the remaining works on the program, adding to the adroit company’s mesmerizing hold over the audience who showed their appreciation with rousing applause at the conclusion of each dance work.
Nick Kolin’s lighting design for each of the work’s six sections enhanced its shifting moods, bathing the stage in seasonal colors to complement Richter’s music for each, while Anna-Alisa Belous’ textured gold costumes, including, a diaphanous flowing robe, exuded richness, and sense of royalty.
As a cast, Philadanco’s dancers were well-rehearsed, smooth performers in Seasons as well as throughout the program.
Next, the company brought the funk in Ephrat Asherie’s Out-Side-In (2022). Rooted in the idioms of breaking and house, and performed to pulsating club music by Donovan Dorrance and Fatty DL, the work for eight dancers had a street party atmosphere. Full of “feeling themselves” attitude, the dancers were playful, a bit sexy, and sometimes competitive and combative in Asherie’s choreography. Infused with hip-hop and popping dance styles, Out-Side-In was movement physicality and grooving on another level.
Opening the program’s second half, Ray Mercer’s 2021 work, This Place, was yet another full-throttle, physically and technically demanding piece full of high-velocity runs, jumps, and spins. Danced to original music by South Africa’s Sbongiseni Duma, Mercer’s piece was inspired by the idea and feeling of community. The work for eleven dancers in five sections explored different aspects of community. Notable were a heartfelt solo of a man seeming to yearn for a sense of community, and a humorous duet in which a female dancer crashed to the stage floor as if tripped, only to be lifted up emotionally by her duet partner. The two then danced gleefully to exhaustion with the section ending with them back-to-back slumping to the stage in relief.
Rounding out the program and replacing company founder Joan Myers Brown’s closer of choice for many years, Christopher L. Huggins’ relentlessly driving Enemy Behind the Gates, choreographer Anthony Burrell’s Conglomerate brought that same intensity only with a dance club vibe. Performed to Darryl J. Hoffman’s pounding boom, boom, boom bass music, Philadanco’s ten dancers, costumed in red, opened the work briskly strut-walking onto the stage, also lit in red.
Said in the playbill to pay homage “to the rich history of Black Dance in Philadelphia,” Conglomerate was another work empowering its dancers with a confident “it’s all about me” attitude. From “strike a pose” moments to “whip and nae nae” social dance references. The work had power, punch, and sensual allure.
Eliciting a well-deserved standing ovation at the program’s end, Philadanco left no doubt they deserve to be brought back soon to further enthrall Cleveland dance audiences.
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