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Lewis J Whittington
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The Painted Bride Art Center
United States
Philadelphia, PA

Diversity Powers Danco 2 & Pennsylvania Ballet II's 2Gether We Dance

by Lewis J Whittington
June 27, 2016
The Painted Bride Art Center
230 Vine Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106-1293
A lot has changed since Joan Myers Brown established her school and company, Philadanco in the 1960s and 70s, she didn’t want other qualified African American ballet dancers to experience what she had a decade before. Brown was a black ballerina with extensive training and still could not dance professionally in the all but exclusively white ballet world. Many years later, even with high-profile exceptions like American Ballet Theatre's Misty Copeland, non-diversity on the ballet stage is still, for all intents, the status quo.

When Brown hears artistic directors say they can’t find African American dancers, she answers bluntly with “You don’t look,” and her mantra continues to be that companies “Should look like America.”

Meanwhile, she continues to take action on her own to bring about permanent change. In Denver for the 2016 International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference (which Brown founded in 1990), she invited more than 15 artistic directors from around the country to see over 80 African American ballerinas audition.

In Philadelphia, Brown’s apprentice company Danco 2 (D/2), directed by Donald Lunsford and Pennsylvania Ballet’s junior company, Pennsylvania Ballet II, led by Francis Veyette have teamed up again for 2Gether We Dance at the Painted Bride Arts Center in Old City.
The collaboration started last year, but their inaugural performance was disappointing to some because the dancers from each company didn’t take the stage together in any of the ballets presented.

Veyette and Lunsford say they were taking necessary “baby steps.” Logistically, that was a fair and realistic approach. To map out scheduling for two companies with young dancers in training who are creating something in a limited amount of time from two distinct choreographic templates takes time. Danco 2 typifies a versatile choreographic aesthetic with African American neoclassicism at its core. Pennsylvania Ballet II with its traditional Balanchine syllabus is now moving in many choreographic directions under director Angel Corella.

The June 15, 2016 performance of 2Gether We Dance fulfilled the promise of the two companies dancing together to some measure with two of the five pieces featuring dancers from both companies onstage together. Still a work-in-progress the program however, showcased a rich artistic opportunity for both troupes.

Recapping the concert highlights:

“Flowing Bodies” by Victor Lewis, for nine dancers was a showcase for Danco 2’s driving ensemble. With quick tempo unison work and quick exits, the action led to more than one scrambly moment. When the club mix the work was set to got to a more pulsing bridge, the dancers entered and broke into a "clubby" communal groove. Then Lewis had them return to a driving balletic finish that brought cohesive technique and a company esprit.

Durante Verzola’s “Terpsichorus Manuevers,” set to music by Joseph Haydn was for 8 dancers. For a 20-something choreographer, Verzola startled with his inventiveness via straightforward balletics. This piece challenged with silky troupe configurations, unfussy classical artistry, and the fluency of phrase variations that gave its dancers a lot to work with.

Verzola danced the central pas de deux with the Jacqueline Callahan, so he was choreographing from a young dancer-centric point of view.

Two polished shorter works were next. Pennsylvania Ballet II director Veyette’s “For Six,” set to music by Chopin, was a Balanchine-esque, mid-tempo ballet with jaunty ensemble phrases that was danced with lyrical expression. And former Philadanco dancer Francisco Gella, now an in-demand international choreographer, showcased Danco 2's muscular and multi-aesthetic template with his piece “Convergence.”

The finale piece was choreographer Wendell Gray's evocative “How Close is Together” that featured dancers from both companies. The work was a driving ensemble drama set to club tracks by De ‘Ja Loin and William Barishki. Its nine dancers pulsed through various communal dance phrases and ended up in a line of dancers in "attitude." As they broke away from that line, dancers Randolph Fernandez was left standing with a wide smile on his face that faded as the lights dimmed. Then the dancers explored reflective or anguished private moments.

The subtext of uncertainty hovered. This piece struck as an excerpt to a larger work and it gave a glimpse at Gray’s sense of stage composition and strong narrative.

Whether racial diversity in the ballet world will truly ever be a reality remains to be seen, meanwhile, the new norm of true diversity on the dance stage this night was celebrated by these troupes and the audience.
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