One of the most distinctive and dynamic choreographers to come out of Philadelphia is hip-hop pioneer Rennie Harris, and other than his own troupe, who better to step to his lively urban beat than Philadanco, one of the city's cultural treasures for the past 38 years. Under the direction of founder Joan Myers Brown, this company has talent, chutzpah, and energy to burn.
Harris's "Philadelphia Experiment" was the highlight of Philadanco's sold-out Boston debut at the ICA last night. Harris attempts to capture Philadelphia's fractured political and social climate in a montage of contrasting projected images, from a stained glass church window to homeless men sprawled on stairs or huddled in doorways, while recorded voices sing and speak of slavery.
However, the set-up feels a little forced and disjunct. The work really takes off when the context is submerged beneath sheer raw energy, when the music settles into a hot rhythmic groove and the dancers cut loose in an extended romp. Harris blends the pumping arms, stomping feet, and sinuous torsos of street and club dance with the weighted kicks and hunched backs of African dance. Well-oiled hips roll, shoulders shimmy, and there's a whole lotta shakin' going on, especially in the rowdy epilogue. Dancers trotted out their best hip-hop and break dance moves as the audience feverishly clapped and cheered.
Christopher L. Huggins's dynamite "Enemy Behind the Gates" has become one of the company's signature works. Huggins trained in Boston before his dancing career with Alvin Ailey, but he's also an accomplished choreographer with a vivid sense of theatricality. Set to a propulsive score by Steve Reich, "Enemy" portrays a drone-like martial society, with 15 dancers in black, double-breasted garb. Lines and phalanxes form and dissolve. Legs cross sharply at the knees or slice through the air, with jutting elbows or arms straight as bayonets. It's an explosion of stark angularity, and the dancers attack it with impressive precision and ferocity.
Huggins also contributed "From Dawn 'Til Dusk," for six women. To Bobby McFerrin's wordless lullaby, the women are like carefree little girls arising from sleep. They curl and uncurl, isolated moves in head and hands rippling from one to another. But when McFerrin sings "Sweet in the Mornin'," they dance with more urgent physicality, running, leaping and spinning with heads thrown back, as if they've blossomed into determined young women overnight.
The lovely opener was "Ritornello," by Philadanco's late resident choreographer, Gene Hill Sagan. Neoclassic in style, romantic in spirit, it was a vibrant whirlwind of swirling red dresses. The dancers leapt and spiraled in a flurry of entrances and exits, like rose petals spinning in the breeze.