Philadelphia’s sleek, smart, sexy contemporary dance company, Philadanco, brought the house to its feet at the close of its mixed program, as Carolina Performing Arts ushered in autumn in UNC’s Memorial Hall. The concert’s centerpiece was the world premiere of the CPA-commissioned Watching Go By, The Day choreographed by Durham native Hope Boykin. Boykin is currently a member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, but prior to joining Ailey, she danced for six years with Philadanco. According to CPA director Emil Kang, when he broached the idea to her of CPA commissioning a dance, Boykin said she’d like to set it on Philadanco. Ali Jackson composed the score, and he and his quintet played the wonderfully textured and paced jazz on the Memorial stage. Under Albert Crawford’s (he’s another NC native) ever-shifting lighting, Boykin gives us a humorous view of people making it out of bed and through a day.
When the lights go up, the company is prone on the stage. Gradually, they wake — with more or less resistance — and go through their morning routines. Except for one guy — he sits up, looks around, and flips his hand at the whole thing. As Boykin exploits the ensemble work at which Philadanco excels, he consistently lags behind or moves in opposition to the group, managing to get dressed only late in the day. There is great male dancing throughout the piece, but The Man Who Didn’t Want to Get Up (Lamar Baylor) has a fantastic solo. At the end, when the others have long since faded into the night, he repeats his not-waking up moves, but in reverse, and the curtain comes down on his recumbent form. Although perhaps a little reliant on pedestrian, natural movement (there is a lot of walking back and forth), this is an entirely enjoyable dance which showed off the company’s gentler side.
Boykin’s work stands in considerable contrast to Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s electric By Way of the Funk. The tripartite structure is a bit clunky, but the dancing to the unique funk of the Parliament Funkadelics was howlingly wonderful. It is hard to mentally separate the dancing from the outrageous black and silver, and later, white and silver, costumes by Anna-Alisa Belous — both are fully in the joyous, freedom-celebrating mode of the playful Funk era of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The evening opened with Philadanco’s Bolero Too, choreographed by Christopher L. Huggins to Ravel’s music. There has been a flurry of mocking Boleros in recent years, but Philadanco plays it straight. There’s humor, but it is not cutting. The emphasis in this sultry version is very much on sexual allure and sexual aggression. Visually, it is stunning, too, in a palette of red, black and white (Huggins also designed the costumes, which include every variety of ruffle, flounce and flourish for the ladies in red, and red back-laced cummerbunds for the men).
Huggins choreographed the closing dance, as well, and again, designed the smashing black costumes, which are lined with red. Enemy Behind the Gates, set to (unidentified) music by Steve Reich, is a blistering, ferocious, post-9/11 dance, extremely powerful. Even when one group among the identically-dressed ensemble has sorted out the malefactors from their midst, and the others fall flat to lie across the stage at cross-angles to the victors, the viewer must ask: Who exactly is the enemy here? Was the enemy vanquished, or did the enemy win? Certainly the enemy is not Philadanco, which very clearly uses it explosive physical power for the greater good.