Philadanco is often categorized as “Alvin Ailey light.” The comparison grows out of it being a mainly black American dance company, performing mainly black American choreography.
But as a repertory company, Philadanco strove for more than just preservation of one man’s vision. Its artistic success grew out of its commitment to diversity — which was on vivid display Friday night at The Egg.
This contemporary ensemble of athletic, dynamic dancers demonstrated its versatility in a program that featured African-inspired dancing by the esoteric dancemaker Ronald K. Brown and street funk moves by hard-hitting, socially conscious Rennie Harris.
The company also showed off its chops in traditional modern dance in George Faison’s beautiful “Otis Suite,” as well as its contemporary style in Matthew Rushing’s “Moan.”
It was all performed to powerful music, including Otis Redding, Nina Simone and Fela Kuti, which made for a rousing union of music and dance.
The company is no stranger to Albany, appearing at The Egg on many occasions. Certainly, one could not count Friday’s performance as its best, only because the dancers were not as fully in synch as they usually are. Yet the chosen repertory won hearts.
The evening opened with the classic “Otis Suite.” Set to the soulful songs by Redding, including “Try A Little Tenderness” and “I’ve Been Loving You,” the dance was a dazzler. The dancers, dressed in shades of dark pink, drew from the drama of the music, displaying their superb technique in tight turns and kicks that sent their feet straight to the heavens.
The men were exceptional in “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” as they pumped their arms and burst forth in low and fast leaps. The women tried to outdo them as they strutted, as if in heels, and ruffled their skirts in “Satisfaction.”
Rushing’s “Moan,” to music by Simone, was similar in structure, as it featured a suite of songs made palpable by the dancers who emoted her impassioned lyrics — romantic, forceful and poignant — while a vision of Simone herself walked among them. “Moan” was a loving tribute to the diva.
Harris snapped the audience into a more troubling, less intimate modern world in his “Wake Up.” To Kuti’s powerful rhythms and vocals, the dancers personified the tough streets of Philadelphia, where both Philadanco and Harris hail. It started with a man, bent, holding his stomach, staggering and coughing.
Was he shot, drunk or ill? It appeared to hardly matter as the dancers broke into a festive riot of club dancing that was cool and edgy. But as the dance unwound, the man reappeared, his woes unresolved.
Finally, the evening included Brown’s otherworldly “Gatekeepers.” To music by Wunmi Olaiya, the piece felt reverent, as if the six dancers were protecting a precious, but unseen, legacy. On a smoky stage, the dancers drove themselves into a religious frenzy that was punctuated by periods of calm.
As with most Brown dances, it remained oddly mysterious.