Brooklyn gets in step with Philadelphia’s contemporary dance troupe, Philadanco

for The Brooklyn Paper
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In anticipation of Black History Month, Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts will welcome the Philadelphia-based dance group, Philadanco, to Brooklyn College’s Walt Whitman Theatre on Jan. 22 as part of its "World of Dance" series.

The company will perform a program of works by former Alvin Ailey member Christopher Huggins and East Flatbush’s own Ronald K. Brown.

Founded 35 years ago by Joan Myers Brown, Philadanco is a modern dance company that features black choreographers and artists. Myers told GO Brooklyn her company was an outgrowth of her school, the Philadelphia School of Dance Art.

"Racism was prevalent in our city [in 1970]. There was nothing for our youngsters to do in ballet and modern dance. Most African-American dancers had to leave Philadelphia to pursue a career," Myers said. "But this group of youngsters didn’t want to leave the city. So I felt I had to do something with them and not let them go to waste."

The dancers in her first company were her own students, aged 17 to 20. Now she draws dancers (who are a little older - 21 to 28) from as far away as California "to maintain the level of the company."

In the early years, Brown choreographed for the company. But after a while she realized, "I had to make a decision. Am I going to be the choreographer or the storekeeper? Am I going to make sure the company is running smoothly?"

These days she looks to other choreographers who will "challenge my dancers and please varied audiences" - as can be seen in the company’s Brooklyn Center program.

David Brown’s "Labesse," is part of a larger work titled "On the Shoulders of Our Ancestors." (But David Brown, Joan Myers Brown and Ronald K. Brown are not related.) "Labesse" is a Tunisian expression meaning that given all we must deal with every day, "It’s all right I’m OK." Built in four sections, with an ensemble of seven dancers and set to music by Zap Mama, an Afro-Euro a cappella women’s group, the piece is a joyous celebration of self-acceptance.

Choreographed by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder of the Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women, "Hand Singing Song" is about "the way African-Americans use their hands to express themselves," said Brown.

Ronald K. Brown’s "Gate Keeper" is a work that has generated standing ovations in the past. "I know it’s one of [Ronald’s] favorite works," said Brown. "I allowed him a year to create it. The integrity of his work is quite evident in the piece."

Christopher Huggins’ "Enemy Behind the Gate" is "our show-off piece," Brown said. "Christopher knows out dancers very well," said Brown. "He was able to pull out the strengths of each dancer. The piece shows each of them at their best." Written for Philadanco and first performed Sept. 9, 2001, "Enemy Behind the Gate," said Brown, is "about how you have to watch your back."

"It was quite coincidental," Brown says of its premiere date. "People can relate to it."

Because her troupe of nine men and nine women performs on a mostly bare stage, Brown says lighting is especially important in the company’s performances. William H. Grant II, who has designed the lighting for the Brooklyn Center show, has been with Philadanco for 28 years.

Brown believes a successful dance company must understand its audience.

"People are receptive to what they’re use to," she said. "But there are also opportunities to introduce new work. You have to be selective. Having a repertory company means you can work with very good choreographers and perform diverse work."

Although Brown’s company mostly performs the work of black choreographers, she does not limit herself to them. For Brown, dance is all about the art. The formula seems to have worked well for her and her group.

Her company has been featured with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and has performed at major venues such as Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and the American Dance Festival. Philadanco has appeared in Brooklyn several times with both the Brooklyn Academy of Music and 651 Arts.

"We have a following," said Brown.

Brown has used her prestige to advocate for African-American artists in the world of dance. She founded the International Conference for Black Dance Companies and the International Association of Blacks in Dance to address the special needs of the black dance community.

Certainly the accomplishments of Philadanco and Brown are worth remembering as Black History Month nears.

Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts’ presentation of Philadanco will take place at the Walt Whitman Theatre on the campus of Brooklyn College (one block from the junction of Flatbush and Nostrand avenues in Flatbush) on Jan. 22 at 8 pm. Tickets are $30. For tickets and more information about Brooklyn Center’s 50th anniversary season, call (718) 951-4500 or visit the Web site at

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