Philadanco’s Founder and Executive Artistic Director Joan Myers Brown has a big, warm, sunny-sounding voice. She speaks to me from a Boston tour stop, where her modern dance company is booked for a three-night run.
Mobile phone to mobile phone, we chat. Modern-style. Having founded Philadanco nearly 39 years ago, Brown has necessarily evolved with the times.
Longevity doesn’t always spell success, she says.
“We’ve just been hangin’ around for 40 years and trying to make it work — keeping it working, I guess,” she says.
It’s also about keeping things diverse and fresh.
Philadanco, also known formally as Philadelphia Dance Company, stands out as one of the country’s top primarily African-American modern dance ensembles. This weekend, Contemporary Dance Theater brings Philadanco’s powerhouse performers to the Aronoff Center for a pair of shows.
Being a repertory company — one that performs works by various choreographers rather than by a single namesake leader — has enabled Brown to work with some of the best in the business. They are often compared with Alvin Ailey’s legendary company because they use some of the same choreographers — because there are a limited number of them, she says. Stylistically, the companies are not exactly dissimilar either.
An example of a choreographer the companies have in common is Milton Myers (no relation to Brown), who’s been Philadanco’s resident choreographer since 1986 and is a faculty member at Julliard and with the Ailey School. This time around, audiences will see Myers’ modern neoclassical “Violin Concerto” set to the strains of Bach.
When Brown describes their signature piece, “Enemy Behind the Gates,” a second Ailey comparison comes up. Because the work really showcases the dancers’ talents, people are always requesting they perform it — so she says it’s become their “Revelations,” in a nod to the Ailey company’s best-known and most frequently performed work.
“Enemy” also carries irony: Choreographer and Artist-in-Residence Christopher Huggins’ program notes read: “They look like you, they act like you, but they’re not like you.”
“(Huggins) was saying, ‘You have to watch your back, because even the people around you, they’re not always who you think they are,’ ” Brown says. “We premiered it the day before 9/11.”
But this weekend’s program offers less serious works, too. “From Dawn ‘til Dusk,” another Huggins piece, offers a lighthearted look at a frenetic day in the life of six busy, multi-tasking women, with music by Bobby McFerrin.
“If I think it’s gonna be a mixed audience, then I try to have a very eclectic program,” Brown says. “Being a repertory company it’s pretty easy. You know, it’s not just the same girl in a different dress (like) when you have the same choreographer all night.”
What does she look for when seeking out new repertory?
“I always have to look for work that will challenge not only the dancers, but the audiences,” she says. “They’re looking for something different.
“I say in Philadelphia, they have the ‘Liberty Bell syndrome’: ‘I’ve seen it, lived here and I know about it.’ ”
She looks for work that’s new and interesting to people because she says many audiences are like football or baseball audiences: hard to please. And in these fund-strapped economic times, keeping audiences satisfied becomes more essential than ever for performing arts organizations to survive.
Philadanco dancers are hard workers and survivors par excellence. There are 18 dancers under the company’s coveted 52-week contracts. Brown says an average audition consists of 40-50 hopefuls for one full-time position.
Known for technical prowess, intense energy and broad stylistic range, Brown explains that dancers don’t always arrive at Philadanco as such; they often need to be “Philadanco-cized.” That is, you’re going to classes almost every day and working and being rehearsed to death, she says. Their training consists primarily of the techniques of modern dance pioneers Lester Horton, Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham, with ballet, Hip Hop, jazz and tap for good measure.
“They take it all, and on a regular basis because they have to take company classes,” she says.
Shedding light on what keeps her going after nearly four decades in the dance world, Brown says, “Well, you know I have two dancing schools, right? So one of the little 4-year-old, 5-year-old kids from my dancing school will say, ‘Miss Joan, I can’t wait to be in Philadanco.’ I’m like, ‘Well, I guess I gotta keep it going.’ So that’s probably what it is — trying to make it available for a new generation of dancers.”
Through my mobile phone I can hear the smile in her voice.
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