PHILADANCO! brought a powerhouse ensemble of dancers to American Dance Festival‘s NC Museum of Art series. Rain cancelled the Saturday performance, but ADF was incredibly lucky to move the performance to Meredith College with their amazing in-house technical staff and lighting designers.

Philadelphia Dance Company PHILADANCO! is celebrating 52 years of empowering diverse dancers and dazzling audiences around the world. Sunday’s performance at Meredith College featured a special guest appearance by PHILADANCO! founder Joan Myers Brown, who traveled with the company on the tour bus from Philadelphia. The PHILADANCO! ensemble includes Kaylah Arielle, Janine Beckles, Leslie Bunkley, William E. Burden, Mikaela Fenton, Mikal Gilbert, Clarricia Golden, Christian D. Gonzalez, Jameel M. Hendricks, Victor Lewis Jr, Floyd McLean Jr, Brandi Pinnix, Lamar Rogers, Xavier Santafield, Brena K. Thomas, and Brittany Wright, and apprentices Grace Kimble and Nicaya Wiley. The company is under the artistic direction of Kim Y. Bears-Bailey.

The company performed three works: Between the Lines, This Place, and Conglomerate. The first work, Between the Lines, featuring choreography by Francisco Gella, was inspired by the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. The choreography showcases the pristine classical ballet training of the dancers: stunning arabesque lines, perfect pirouettes, cabrioles, and extremely challenging petite allegro with not a sound made on the landings. The men flew through the air with ala seconde jumps and fouettés. Again, not a sound on the landings. The women were dynamically strong and expressive.

The music by Phillip Glass and Gidon Kremer built in intensity and speed. Make no mistake, PHILANDANCO! dancers have the training to execute Gella’s highly ballet-centric choreography. Second on the program, This Place showcased choreography by Ray Mercer, who has had a long career as a dance maker and currently is on Broadway in The Lion King. Music by Darryl J. Hoffman and costumes by Natasha Guruleva added intricate layers. This piece, indicated by Mercer as a collage, was epic and seemed to go on for forever with five different sections. Costumes played an integral part of the piece with different looks, including long flowing black and red skirts worn by both the women and men. Trios and duets showcased the dancers in an intimate way. This piece was technically based in contemporary choreography, which was executed at its finest by soloist Mikaela Fenton.

A sound clip of former dancer and poet Dr. Maya Angelou’s voice began the piece:

Imagine! I’ve had so many rainbows in my clouds. I had a lot of clouds, but I had so many rainbows. I bring everyone who has ever been kind to me with me, Black, White, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Native American, Gay, Straight, everybody. I said, Come on with me. I’m going on the stage. Come with me. I need you now.

This place, this stage, this community of dancers sharing their art to the fullest with a live audience was deeply moving. Nothing was left unsaid with the dancers’ final pose, on the floor pointing up towards the sky as if daring the dance gods to give them more. Even though This Place was second on the program, it drew a well deserved standing ovation.

After a brief pause for the ensemble to change costumes, PHILADANCO! founder Joan Myers Brown made a quiet entrance to the stage. She then demanded the audience make more noise, and then shared the story of a 10-year-old boy who gave her trouble. She spoke with a gleam in her eye about her former student Anthony Burrell‘s journey from trouble maker to dance maker of the stars. Burrell, a former dancer with PHILADANCO! and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, now choreographs for major recording stars such as Mariah Carey, Rihanna, and Beyoncé. On returning to PHILADANCO! to create Conglomerate, Burrell says “This work pays homage to the rich history of Black Dance in Philadelphia that inspired my journey as a dancer, choreographer and creative director.”

At the piece’s beginning, lights came up slowly to reveal the dancers facing upstage in bright red costumes with fun fringe, designed by Emilio Sosa and executed by Natasha Guruleva. One by one they turned to the audience. Meanwhile, the upbeat afro-beat music compiled by Hoffman was loud and proud. Burrell doesn’t want to break the fourth wall, he wants to shatter it. The intensity of the dancers’ connection in this performance exuded pride: pride in their identities, diversity, Philadelphian roots, and powerhouse abilities as dancers.

Burrell has created a fashion show of fierceness, a hip-hop ballet with battements, that challenges the dancers to push the boundaries of their dance powers. Dancers connect with center stage fashion show catwalks, circle formations for entrances and exits, all the while intensely looking at the audience. You better walk. You better bourrée backwards. You better dance until you break the floor. The entire ensemble was on fire. The partnering between the men, executing double ala seconde turns and leaps, showcased their strength, and all of the women dancers had moments to shine. The soloist, Kaylah Arielle, needs to be entered into the Olympics for dance. She would win GOLD. Burrell has created a signature piece for his former dance company and undoubtedly has made his former dance teacher incredibly proud. One request, please add an encore after the bows. And for one more request – continue to make trouble and dances for PHILADANCO!