The program Philadanco brought to BAM's Harvey Theater flagged key stages in the African-American contribution to the making of modern dance in this country. The engagement of the much-respected 30-year-old troupe, dominated by black leadership, black dance-makers, and black performers, was part of a huge, multifaceted project by 651 Arts, resident at the Harvey. This undertaking, "Black Dance: Tradition and Transformation," is designed to explore and celebrate the rich, multiple manifestations of "black dance" instead of engaging in a futile attempt to define the term (work by black choreographers? Performances by black dancers? Choreography depicting the black experience?).
Milton Myers contributed Philadanco's curtain-raiser, Echoes: A Celebration of Alvin Ailey. While the material clearly borrows from Ailey's signature motifs, it fails both to integrate them into new structural and imaginative contexts and to make any point about Ailey's particular genius (which was not for choreography per se but for bringing a vision into being). Myers, the troupe's resident choreographer, succeeds only in doing what his job implicitly requires. He creates a serviceable context in which the dancers can look very, very good -- individually and as a group. This is swell but not sufficient.
The evening's centerpiece was the revival of Talley Beatty's 1947 Southern Landscape. Typical of the folkloric vein in the modern dance of its era, the work is picturesque, easy to read, and humanistic to a point verging on the maudlin. In a string of vignettes, it depicts the trials and joys of a rural slave population. It operates in three familiar modes: suffering, spiritual consolation, and celebration. Struggling or rejoicing, this community co-opts your love, not least because it refuses to let evil have the last word. Beatty's optimism, along with his gifts for rhythm and theater, seduces the viewer into enjoying his show, though in our less sentimental times, that Norman Rockwell viewpoint can be disconcerting.
Dwight Rhoden provided the program's brand-new entry, Tribute. Typical of the postmodern genre, it's edgy and disjunctive, full of erotic aggression, narcissistic woe, and manic gaiety -- all given a slick, commercial veneer of glamour. Rhoden has superficial panache but as yet little craft; Tribute is a gaudy mess. It looks very "now," but it has no staying power and is likely to seem dated by next season.
The main attraction of Philadanco lies in its dancing rather than in a repertory that, given the global dearth of worthy choreographers, is unavoidably mediocre. The company style, embodied by the troupe's white and Asian minority as well as by its black dancers, is visceral -- fierce and sensuous by turns -- elegant, and ingratiating. The performers register not as machines for dancing but as touchingly human individuals, distinguished by their aspiration to a beauty and fluency beyond the pedestrian. Philadanco's founder and director, Joan Myers Brown, is the one to thank.