With America struggling with issues of race and social justice, two African-American dance companies will bring their different dance styles to the same stage to interpret two events seared into our history.
Philadelphia’s modern-dance company Philadanco! and the hip-hop company Rennie Harris Puremovement will bring their vibrant, energetic and explosive dancing to “Straight Outta’ Philly” Oct. 18 at N.C. State University’s Stewart Theatre.
“It is a good time to do these works,” said Joan Myers Brown, founder and artistic director of Philadanco! in a recent phone interview, talking about the ballets. Brown has led her company for 48 years and received the National Medal of Arts from former President Obama in 2012.
Philadanco!’s “Movement for Five” will explore the saga of the Central Park Five. In 1989, five teens – four black and one Hispanic – were accused of rape and assault of a jogger in New York City, were sent to prison but later were found to be innocent. The five have been in the news in the past year as President Donald Trump questioned their innocence during his campaign.
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“Philadelphia Experiment,” danced by both companies and choreographed by Rennie Harris, tackles a lesser-known event: the MOVE bombing. The violent stand-off between police and members of MOVE, a black liberation group, happened in West Philadelphia 32 years ago in 1985.
The subsequent police bombing of the group’s rowhouse later that day resulted in one of the city’s worst fires. It killed 11 people, five of them children, destroyed more than 50 neighboring houses and left about 240 people homeless. This year, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission erected an historical marker at the site.
“It’s about the experiment of dropping a bomb on a rowhouse,” Brown said about “Philadelphia Experiment.” “Dropping a bomb on an inner-city block, the whole block was destroyed.”
Who suffers? Who’s responsible?
Brown said she still has children taking dance at her school whose parents are associated with MOVE.
While her Philadanco! group’s style differs from Puremovement, which has been around for 20 years, Brown said her dancers adapted well.
“I think initially when I told my dancers, they said, ‘hip-hop?’ ” Brown said. “I told them if you can dance, you can dance anything.”
Making it easier, she said, is the story they will tell with their performance.
Philadanco! also will present “Folded Prism,” which Brown calls a “beautiful ballet” by Vietnamese choreographer Tang Doa. Rennie Harris Puremovement also will perform “Nuttin’ But a Word,” billed as “pushing the boundaries of street dance,” and “A Funny Thing Happened!?,” a solo.
Brown emphasized how important it is not just to recognize historical events but especially the contributions of African-American artists.
“They don’t teach our youngsters what has happened in our community,” Brown said.
For example, Brown said on a recent trip to England, she listened as a speaker suggested jazz dance began with Fred Astaire, ignoring the African-American roots of the dance style. And she said she has college students who don’t know anything about African-American modern-dance pioneers such as Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus.
“They’re so much that’s being left out,” Brown said. “The arts are a way to get that message across.”
Philadelphia, the city that introduced Chubby Checker and “American Bandstand” to the rest of the country, has so much dance, Brown said.
“The last time I counted, 46 dance companies in Philadelphia are solid,” she said. “Even though we’re close to New York City, we’re like a family here. There’s a culture of sharing, a culture of training.”
And two of those companies will bring their culture of sharing here.
What: “Straight Outta’ Philly”
When: 8 p.m. Oct 18. A pre-show talk is at 7 p.m. in Room 3222, Talley Student Union. Joan Myers Brown, founder and artistic director of Philadanco!, Rodney Hill, co-manager and former dancer with Rennie Harris Puremovement, and Andres Woods Valdés, associate professor of dance at Duke University will talk about how they bring their genres together.
Where: N.C. State’s Stewart Theatre, Talley Student Union
Info: live.arts.ncsu.edu or 919-515-1100