Philadanco blends modern dance styles with African-American influences

On Saturday Feb. 9, the Philadelphia-based dance company Philadanco roused the audience at Wadsworth Auditorium with a stunning performance that will be remembered as a highlight of this year's Limelight & Accents Performing Arts Series.

Seniors Dana Besmanoff and Sally Schaefer, co-coordinators of Limelight & Accents, worked together to bring the renowned company to Geneseo.

“I've known of Philadanco for quite a while,” Besmanoff said. “[The dancers] are super talented, and they do modern dance with African-American influences.”

This distinctive influence was apparent from the first moment of the show. Philadanco performed to the songs of blues singer Otis Redding, including the popular “Satisfaction” and “Try a Little Tenderness.”

Incorporating both speaking and acting, the first segment, “Suite Otis,” took on a spunky personality. The dancers expressed powerful emotions, and they portrayed stories with universal themes of carefree fun, love and couples fighting and reconciling.

The dances - smoothly incorporating modern, ballet and informal party steps - were reminiscent of an upbeat musical. Meanwhile, the flawless precision and coordination of difficult movements never let audience members forget they were watching a top quality company.

“Gatekeepers,” the next segment, created an abrupt shift in style and mood, underscoring the incredible versatility of Philadanco. While “Suite Otis” was a vibrant and soulful celebration, “Gatekeepers” implied darker themes. Singer Wunmi Olaiya's ghostly and futuristic score perfectly enhanced the dancers' juxtaposition of robotic and fluid motion. 

The dancers' range of movements was broad. They were jerky and sudden at times, tangential to the traditional grace of dance, but always stunning. Matching the fear implied by the music, the dancers lunged with anxious speed then slowed suddenly. They mimicked teetering over the edge of a cliff, their arms swinging wildly.

Soon after, a thumping club-style beat took over, taking the audience from a mysterious world to a modern day rave. The next series, titled “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner,” was comprised of short, distinct pieces. No matter the style of dance or mood, Philadanco was consistently adept and passionate.

“A lot of dance companies appeal to people, they just don't know it yet,” Schaefer said

This certainly seemed to be true of the audience at the show. After the last number, “Enemy Behind the Gates,” an appropriately climactic performance to the music of Steve Reich, the audience gave a standing ovation. Philadanco deserved no less.

“Just watching people who are so talented is great.  Even if you aren't familiar with dance, you can recognize the amount of talent [the dancers] have and appreciate it,” Schaefer said.