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Phildanco: Not Your Average Jewish Dance

Phildanco: Not Your Average Jewish Dance

Last night I went to Phildanco’s performance at The Joyce and saw something I did not expect: a dance set to Steve Reich’s "Tehillim." Phildanco is one of America’s premier contemporary dance companies, with a heavy African-American influence. And "Tehillim" is Reich’s iconic Jewish chorale. Not there’s a necessary contradiction, hardly. But seeing the company’s exceptional dancers shimmy to Reich gave me pause.

Alas, it wasn’t the company’s best. Choreographed by Christopher Huggins in 2002, the Reich-scored piece, titled "Enemy At the Gates," has the company clad in crisp, martial, vaguely Oriental-looking uniforms. Befitting Reich’s aesthetic, the choreography was at once streamlined and fierce: dancers sliced through the air and wove among one in another in militaristic precision. It was not at all bad–in fact, it was quite good–but merely so. Other than the wonderful all-black costumes, with its lethal red lining peeking out from the inseams, it did not live up to Reich’s aural magic.

But there was much else worth watching. Of the four dances being performed, the first two were by far the best. Huggins’ other piece, "Bolero Too!" was a personal favorite, and it came on first. Set to Ravel’s seductive score, it captured the music’s primal sexual energy as never I’ve heard it. The men, dressed like matadors (black tights, loose white shirts), kept time with their hips. Back, forth, back, forth–just like that. The women, in their flaming, red hot dresses, followed suit. Their hips clocked slowly back and forth too, at once meritricious and reserved. It was as if they were blowing kisses to the audiences, whispering with their bodies, "Look, just don’t touch."

Plenty of ballet steps were in evidence in "Bolero Too!" as well. Dancers kept their spines tall and straight; spins, twists and jumps done from the balls of their feet. But it was only after seeing the next dance, the ’70s era send-up "By Way of the Funk," that the full talent of the company came into focus. It is obvious from all the pieces that Phildanco’s dancers have mastered many genres of "high art" dance–ballet, modern. But "By Way of the Funk" showed you these folks can just plain get down. They brought out much of nightclub dancing, from Michael Jackson’s silky, insounciant steps, to the effortless cool of Andre 3000. There were elements borrowed from deep within the African-American tradition too–second line, cakewalk, soul train, and glimmers of vaudeville too. But too analyze the dance by way of its parts would diminish its powerful whole.

It does not matter whether you’re a fan of American Ballet Theatre, Martha Graham, or MTV music videos, "By Way of the Funk" transfixed everyone who saw it. If you haven’t, you must. Go before Phildanco skips town this Sunday.

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