ABOVE PHOTO: A performance by the Philadanco dancers during “50 Plus One” years in concert “PHILADANCO! Fast Forward…to the Future.” Photo courtesy Kharisma McIllwaine)
By Kharisma McIlwaine
Philadanco (The Philadelphia Dance Company) is a name synonymous with greatness not only in the Philadelphia dance community, but throughout the country and the world.
Philadanco was founded in 1970 by the legendary Joan Myers Brown, and continues to provide opportunities specifically for Black dancers. The poise, technique and talent of the dancers in the company is otherworldly and inspire excellence on every level.
As the resident company of Kimmel Cultural Campus/Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Perelman Theater, Philadanco wows audiences every year with exceptional performances. Lovers of dance have waited for Philadanco dancers to return to the Kimmel stage, after COVID-19 derailed plans for the 50th year celebration.
That patience was awarded just in time to celebrate Philadanco’s 51st year on December 10-12th. Audiences got to experience the greatness that is Philadanco in the “50 Plus One” in Concert “PHILADANCO! Fast Forward…to the Future.” performance at The Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater. Joan Myers Brown spoke with The Sun about this milestone performance and continuing the incredible mission of Philadanco.
“It’s our first time being back in The Kimmel after the pandemic. Even though we’ve done some touring, we haven’t been performing in Philadelphia. I can’t thank them enough for making us a part of their resident companies and including us in everything they do. They support me in so many ways… that’s so unique. They make it possible for people to see us and for us to do these shows”, Brown said. “On our opening night we are honoring one of my alumni, Mr. Lee Daniels. When I found out that nobody in the city had really acknowledged him, I wanted to make this honor very special for him. So, it’s a special night for us — the 20th anniversary at The Kimmel, our opening and [the] Lee Daniels award. Lee Daniels, Leslie Odom Jr., Blondell Reynolds Brown and so many others didn’t become dancers, but they became great people. Dance does so much for people that parents don’t realize. The training, discipline, perseverance and all of those things that we talk about that dance does reinforces that coming to dance class paid off in many different ways.”
After a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19, Philadanco dancers were eager to perform new material and Brown was elated to give them the chance to do so.
“It’s great having the opportunity to dance for a live audience in your hometown, doing all new work and showing that we’re still here.” Brown continued, “I was able to keep my dancers on salary for two years by fundraising. I was able to make sure they didn’t lose their skills and they didn’t have to worry about where their next meal was coming from.
They were able to stay in class, even online and once the vaccine came out, we were able to come back together. We did some touring and some presentations but my dancers having the opportunity to come together and share their talents with audiences is important to them. I’m glad that I’m able to give them those opportunities.”
Joan Myers Brown opened the door for so many Black dancers to have access to professional training and to stages that for so long were unattainable.
Many of the barriers present when Brown began her mission with Philadanco, are still currently in place.
“Even today, and I’ll call it out — The Pennsylvania Ballet, 50 years later, there’s no Black women on the stage. They say they have Black women, but you don’t see them. You’ll see a Black man… one — now that one is leaving. I want to know are they going to hire another one?”, Brown asked. “Why don’t the ballet companies look like America… why aren’t they mixed? The modern dance companies are usually more integrated, but the opportunities haven’t changed in 50 years. That was my objective with Philadanco. If I didn’t get the opportunity that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make it available for someone else… and that’s what I did for my kids. I say all the time I just wanted to put them on the stage and let them dance because they could.”
The “PHILADANCO! Fast Forward…to the Future” performances fall in line with Brown’s mission to provide opportunities for Black dancers to excel. It pays homage to the past and simultaneously embraces the future.
“I hired four new choreographers. One of my choreographers had cancer and couldn’t come across the border because he was sick, and the border wasn’t open. So, I hired one of my boys, Anthony Burrell who choreographed for Mariah Carey, Beyoncé and Rihanna. I’m going to do one of his pieces and hold onto that. Then the new pieces move us forward and are new ways of thinking and seeing dance. The choreographers showed how they felt during the pandemic and shared what they wanted to say.” She added, “I don’t want to be stuck in the past… we want to continue to move forward. Next time I want to go back and revisit all of the great pieces… in the spring I’m thinking about doing that. But for now, I want to make sure people know we’re still here, still doing work and still moving forward. We have a lot of touring coming up as long as the health situation permits… or we’ll stay home and stay ready.”
The “PHILADANCO! Fast Forward…to the Future” performance included four pieces: the world premiere of “Roked” choreographed by Thang Dao, the world premiere of “This Place” choreographed by Ray Mercer, the world premiere of “Hidden Jewels”, choreographed by Katherine J. Smith and “Conglomerate” choreographed by Philadanco alum Anthony Burrell. The 90-minute performance featured dancers: Kaylah Arielle, Janine Beckles, William E. Burden, Mikaela Fenton, Clarricia Golden, Jameel M. Hendricks, Victor Lewis Jr., Floyd McLean Jr, Brandi Pinnix, Courtney Robinson and Lamar Rogers. During the opening night of the performances, honorary chair and Philadanco alum Lee Daniels was honored. His mother Clara Watson accepted his awards and City Council Citation on his behalf. Additionally, alumni and co-chairs Sheryl Lee Ralph and Leslie Odom Jr. were also celebrated. When asked about the impact that Philadanco had on his life, Daniels stated the following,
“Joan Myers introduced me along with so many others to the arts. I owe my career to her.”
Former city councilmember and Philadanco alum Blondell Reynolds Brown echoed that sentiment.
“My professional and personal experiences have taught me that gratitude is a very difficult emotion to convey, so until we find a word that is more appropriate, thank you will have to do.” said Reynolds Brown, “I join the thousands of dancers whose lives were touched by Joan Myers Brown, affectionately known as Aunty Joan or JB. Hard work and excellence in the execution of choreography was expected and given. ‘Sticktuitiveness’ in the pursuit of my aspirations is the one quality I most attribute to my training at Philadanco. I remain eternally grateful to JB for the chance to have danced professionally.”
“Roked” which means to dance in a masculine form in Hebrew, showcased dancers peeling away the antiquated ideals of what it means to be masculine. Dancers wore green, blue and tan suits in bare feet dancing in sync… eventually peeling away their suit jackets to reinforce the shedding of old ideas. “This Place” began with a voiceover from Maya Angelou urging us to “prepare yourself to be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.” This piece featured trios of dancers in the same color working together as foundations for one another. The duo at the end was particularly playful and comical. “Hidden Jewels” featured five female dancers in black dresses with purple, green, red, blue and orange accents. This piece highlighted intense emotions, sisterhood and the shared experience of womanhood. The final piece “Conglomerate” was my personal favorite. The dancers donned in red and fringes moved with finesse to Afro-Caribbean inspired drums. This piece was flirtatious, fun and full of incredible techniques and athleticism. Choreographer Anthony Burrell described this piece best stating, “this work pays homage to the rich history of Black dance in Philadelphia that inspired my journey as a dancer, choreographer and creative director.”
My memories of attending classes at Philadanco as a young person are among some of my fondest childhood memories. Joan Myers Brown is a treasure and a gift not only to Philadelphia but to the dance world as a whole. Her contributions to Philadanco as they continue to pave the way and open doors for Black dancers to share their gifts is immeasurable. Here’s to another 50 Plus years of greatness! For more information on classes, auditions and upcoming performances, visit www.philadanco.org.
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