Philadanco celebrates a half-century of dancing

Joan Myers Brown’s Philadephia-based Philadanco.
Joan Myers Brown’s Philadephia-based Philadanco.Lois Greenfield

Not many modern-dance companies make it to the age of 50. And hardly any that do have the same person at the helm for all those years. But Philadanco! — i.e., Philadelphia Dance Company — was founded back in 1970 by the redoubtable Joan Myers Brown, and she remains its executive/artistic director. The program Philadanco! brought to the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre on Saturday, as part of Global Arts Live’s Winter Dance Fest, was an athletic one that included Christopher Huggins’s “Enemy Behind the Gate,” which was on the bill when the company made its Boston debut at the Institute of Contemporary Art in 2008. The other three pieces were Boston premieres, though Philadanco! presented Ray Mercer’s “Super 8!” and Anthony Burrell’s “Endangered Species,” along with “Enemy,” at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 2018.

The opener, “Super 8!,” is in three parts. “Composition” spotlights couples, three in turn, all playfully confident and celebratory. “Theme of Peace,” to a wistful piano, finds Victor Lewis Jr. and William Burden moving in unison, bonding with and supporting each other, revealing an Ailey-like vulnerability. Finally, the music upbeat again, “After Life” starts with seven dancers sashaying out from the wings in a chorus line before the eighth flings himself into their number. There’s a brief shift in couples, the four women strut their stuff, then the four men, until the group finale. The nonstop dancing is top-notch, but the part titles are a puzzle, and only that male duet is really distinctive.


“Endangered Species” begins with six men standing in a line upstage, their backs to us, their hands about to be raised in surrender. They’re wearing red jumpsuits with their first names stenciled on the back, and when you see Trayvon and Philando among those names, you realize what species it is that’s endangered. To a pounding percussive score, the men link arms, stomp in tribal community, fall as if shot, commiserate with another, rise and reassert themselves. The piece is sufficiently plain and powerful that the newscast voice-overs about the killings of unarmed black men and the passage from Donovan Livingston’s celebrated 2016 Harvard Graduate School of Education speech (“I have always been a thorn in the side of injustice”) seem redundant. “Endangered Species” concludes with all six men having pulled down their tops, and whereas both hands were raised at the start, it’s just the right one, in a fist, at the finish.

Thang Dao’s “Folded Prism,” the Boston premiere, begins as an ensemble work for nine dancers in white unitards before breaking into the usual smaller units and then reassembling for the finale. The highlights here, as in “Super 8!,” are the duets. Like “Super 8!,” “Folded Prism” is fun to watch, but the dancers do what they’ve done elsewhere. I would have rather seen the fourth piece Philadanco! presented at the Pillow, Gene Hill Sagan’s “Suite en Bleu,” which shows off the company’s balletic side.


The closer, “Enemy Behind the Gate,” is, according to the program note, “a work that was inspired by the enemies within our midst.” Set to a Steve Reich score of perpetual suspense and darkly lit, it’s a tale of sentries, the 12 dancers marching on in double-breasted military outfits, black lined in red. As the music ramps up, the angular, militant dancing grows more frenetic, as if the enemy had infiltrated. There’s a pause during which the dancers, crouching warily, recompose themselves, but when the music gets wild again, they become savage in a way that makes you wonder how they might treat “The Rite of Spring.” “Enemy Behind the Gate” has become a signature piece for Philadanco!, and it’s not hard to see why.



“Super 8!,” by Ray Mercer. “Endangered Species,” by Anthony Burrell. “Folded Prism,” by Thang Dao. “Enemy Behind the Gate,” by Christopher Huggins. Presented by Global Arts Live. At Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, Sat. Feb. 1.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.