ALBANY — Joan Myers Brown expects a lot from her dancers at Philadanco.
“If a choreographer comes in and asks the dancers to stand on their eyelashes, they have to say, ‘I can do that.’ ”
And how do they achieve such feats? Brown says by dancing all styles, all the time.
“A lot of dance companies give a warm-up class,” said Brown who founded the Philadelphia repertory ensemble 38 years ago. “At Philadanco, we have a roster of teachers who constantly give classes in Horton, Graham, ballet, hip-hop, African, Dunham. Because we work with so many different choreographers, it’s important for the dancers to be ready.”
And, unlike most companies, which typically work 40 weeks, Philadanco dances year-round, all 52 weeks.
This endurance and versatility, which has been dubbed a “miracle of skill and energy,” will be showcased tonight at The Egg.
WHERE: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
WHEN: 8 tonight
HOW MUCH: $24, $20 seniors and $12 children
MORE INFO: 473-1845 or www.theegg.org
The return engagement will open with a piece by Philadanco alum Zane Booker who addresses issues of politics and sexuality. His “In Between Time,” to music by Chuck Mangione, will be followed by a piece by former Alvin Ailey dancer Milton Myers (“Violin Concerto” with music by Philip Glass) and one from arena-style choreographer Daniel Ezralow (“Pulse” with a commissioned score by David Lang).
The bill will culminate with a show-stopping finale, “Philadephia Experiment,” by hip-hopper Rennie Harris.
“The hip-hop with Rennie was hard for the dancers. But we are always looking for new and interesting repertory,” said Brown by phone from Philadelphia. “I never wanted a company that only showed my work or what I want to say. I want to appeal to a lot of different people, and I want to challenge the dancers. I want to challenge the audience, too.”
Brown is not afraid to eschew expectations to blaze her own way. As a young black ballet dancer in the 1960s, she was discouraged by segregation and racism, then the norm in the dance world. Rather than buckle under societal pressures and find a new career, Brown established Philadanco so that other young black dancers would have a place to perform.
Like most successful companies, she started with a school, the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts. As her dancers matured, she fed them into the company. For years, Philadanco was an exclusive by-product of her conservatory. A few graduates flew off to join Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater or the Dance Theatre of Harlem, but most stayed with Brown. But as segregation waned, her well-trained dancers were welcomed all over America.
“They know where to go so they don’t have to fight that [race] battle,” she said.
And with the change in attitudes came a change in Philadanco. The company is no longer exclusive to dancers from the City of Brotherly Love. Philadanco dancers now hail from around the nation, which has made Brown far more selective. For example, at a recent audition, hundreds showed up for one spot.
Dancers flock to Philadanco, not just for the consistent work and company housing, another rarity for dancers, but for the chance to create with today’s top dancemakers. In addition to those previously mentioned, Brown has commissioned choreographers Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Elisa Monte, Ronald K. Brown and Bebe Miller.
“The piece Elisa Monte did for the company didn’t work,” said Brown. “But that’s OK. It’s the experience that counts.”
The dancers then get a chance to perform these works internationally. The company is engaged for 50 to 60 performances and 45 residencies a year. Europe is a favorite destination.
So, too, is The Egg in Albany.
“We’ve been there so many times that it feels like going on vacation. We have a reputation, and I hope the friendship continues,” said Brown.
While Brown is proud of her ensemble’s accomplishments, the 76-year-old said she would like to retire soon. Yet she has not found a successor willing to dedicate the endless hours to Philadanco. So she promises to keep on going, creating a space for dancers and choreographers to pursue the art of dance.
“So much of what is going on in dance is . . . well, what we do is good old-fashioned dance. It’s quality and what people will enjoy.”
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Categories: Life and Arts