Philadanco's 'H-I-S-T-O-R-Y' a delightful celebration of achievement in African American dance

At Christmastime, history is usually restricted to Victorian-clad carolers and triumphant re-creations of George Washington crossing the Delaware.

Celebrating a different historical narrative, Philadanco was full of surprise and delight when it opened its winter program Friday night at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater.

The company doesn’t do much in the way of pre-show promotion, so audience members often have to trust that the company will provide. This surprise gift was a celebration of African American dance history.

The highlight Friday was a performance by Carmen de Lavallade, just back from Washington, where she accepted a Kennedy Center Honor.

At 86, de Lavallade still looks fantastic. Her piece, The Creation, was choreographed by her late husband, Geoffrey Holder. It opens with de Lavallade sitting on a bench with her back to the audience. She’s wearing a long, sumptuous red dress, her hair in a pristine bun.

Seated through most of the piece, she recites a tale written by James Weldon Johnson about the world’s beginning. Her arm movements were mesmerizing as they illustrated the story, her fingers splayed like a bird’s feathers or cutting through the air like a flamenco dancer. Her grace onstage Friday recalled that of another age-defying dancer, Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who performed The Dying Swan into her 60s.

Another work on the program is Walking With Pearl … Southern Diaries, a company premiere that pays homage to early ambassador of African American dance Pearl Primus. Choreographed by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and set to music by Josh White and Sweet Honey in the Rock, the piece includes and expands upon Primus’ Southern Diaries.

Camera icon GENEVA HEFFERNAN
“Walking with Pearl … Southern Diaries,” another piece on the program. (GENEVA HEFFERNAN / Staff Photographer)

As a narrator spoke about Primus’ time in the South during the 1930s and ’40s, the dancers moved their entire bodies to the words. The most poignant sections were ones where they rhythmically clapped, stamped their feet, and moved in circles.

Louis Johnson’s Forces of Rhythm was first performed in Philadelphia in 1976, and it has not lost any vitality. Johnson (who also choreographed Michael Jackson and Diana Ross in The Wiz) traces African American dance history from its ethnic roots to ballet and modern dance. It was fun to watch Philadanco explore the breadth of its talent, from classical pointe work to high leaps where the men moved their legs as though running through the air.

The program opened with the world premiere of Pieces of My Heart (excerpts) by Sonia Dawkins, who began her career in Philadanco’s second company. The work is based on seven unpublished poems by August Wilson and his daughter Azula. The dancers wear hats and come together in beautiful shapes as they pass along a napkin — the medium on which the great American playwright was known to jot down thoughts that would inspire his masterpieces.

Wilson told a New York audience in 1991 that early in his career his friends had been painters. “I was not envious of them, because they were always trying to get money for paint and get money for canvas. I felt that my tools were very simple. I could borrow a pencil and write on a napkin or get a piece of paper from anyone.”

The program repeats Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the Kimmel Center. Tickets: $30-$47. Information: 215-893-1999 or kimmelcenter.org.

This article was changed to correct information about the lyrics to "The Creation." They came from a poem by James Weldon Johnson, not Geoffrey Holder as originally stated.