'Le Grand Continental' to be performed in Philadelphia

"Le Grand Continental" dancers, almost all of them amateurs, rehearsing at Penn's 1923 Arena rink.
"Le Grand Continental" dancers, almost all of them amateurs, rehearsing at Penn's 1923 Arena rink. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 07, 2012

If the 2012 Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe had an opening ceremony like the Olympics, it might well be the massive free dance performance called Le Grand Continental, which will take place three times this weekend at the foot of the Art Museum steps.

Kicking up their heels will be more than 150 dancers - baristas and businesspeople, students and stay-at-homes, dancer wannabes of all stripes, plus a sprinkling of pros - who auditioned months ago and have spent the summer rehearsing for a half-hour of festival glory.

Le Grand Continental, a cross between line dancing and contemporary dance, already has been performed in Montreal, Mexico City, and New York, and will be seen next in Portland, Ore. Like Cirque du Soleil, another Montreal export, it has taken on a life of its own.

"It's a project that is growing, and we're learning as it is growing because we didn't plan it to be like this," said Sylvain Emard, its choreographer, who created it as a one-time show with 65 people but has seen it expand to as many as 210.

The Philadelphia cast, ages 8 to about 70, has come a long way since June, when would-be performers responding to festival e-mails and notices on meetup.com walked uncertainly into the Ethical Society, had their photos taken, pinned on numbers, and learned a section of choreography. Most brought enthusiasm and not much else.

Alexis Corbitt was in the last weeks of her dental residency at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center last spring when her hygienist stopped by. "I thought she wanted me to do a comprehensive exam," said Corbitt, who now practices in Bensalem, "but she asked me if I want to be in a flash mob."

Corbitt not only said yes, she immediately contacted her friend Yemisi Ogunro, a Philadelphia attorney, who was eager as well.

"We're a bundle of energy!" Corbitt said after the initial recruitment session.

But while she and others were thinking this would be a dance popping up in an ordinary setting, that's not what Le Grand Continental is about, Emard said.

"Flash mob is another phenomenon, which is very exciting," he said. "Most of the time, people have learned choreography on the Web or something from a video clip and they're just gathering, do it, and don't even rehearse sometimes. In this case, it's a 30-minute choreography. It's very challenging for the nonprofessional. Yes, you do what you can, but you try to do your best, because it's a performance."

To make it all work, Emard said, "There's always someone in charge that has to be me when I'm not here." That person in Philadelphia has been Sarah Gladwin Camp, a dancer who also runs a program called Zoom Dance, action adventure storytelling dance classes for children.

"I'm kind of in charge of 200 people," Gladwin Camp said cheerfully during the audition period, when about 250 came through. They ultimately were whittled down by almost 100, a typical rate, Emard said, because of injuries, conflicts, or the difficulty of the choreography.

"It's such a crash course," Gladwin Camp said of the rehearsal period, which included at least four hours a week of practice with her and eight other professional dancers.

At a recent rehearsal, she called out, "And ice skate, ice skate, drama, drama, drama!" over the muffled sound system, using descriptive terms Emard and others came up with to help the performers. "You're looking for your Prince Charming or your Princess Charming."

After that first evening in June, Corbitt and Ogunro were hooked. What they didn't know was that they had learned only about 10 seconds of a 30-minute piece, or that they were committing to intense rehearsal at an almost professional level.

"It is a lot, but summer is pretty free," Cherese Verdi, a Philadelphia meeting planner, said during a break from a July rehearsal in a Northern Liberties warehouse, where half the group rehearsed one night and half the next. She had been a cheer dancer at Haverford High School and Widener University. After receiving a festival e-mail about the show, "I signed up in two seconds."

"This is my fun and it's a free activity," she said. "It's all ages, all types of experience. I wish there were more of these."

Performing is "the ultimate challenge" for Glenn Booker, a professor in information systems at Drexel. He was born with legs of different lengths, underwent several surgeries, and was left with a long scar on his left leg. "You can walk, you can go to school, and you can drive," doctors told him. But that wasn't going to cut it for Booker, who seven years ago took up ballet, modern, and jazz dance.

Choreographer Emard's own intro to dance was line dancing in church basements. Years later, as head of his own modern dance company, he began reminiscing and slipping line-dance sections into most of his pieces. Then, in 2009, he decided to take a serious look. "I realized that it's such a universe in itself," he said. "The line-dancing world is amazingly big and sophisticated. Then I realized they use all kinds of music."

His idea was to use non-dancers and popular music to create something blending line and contemporary dance. It worked, and after three outings in Montreal, he created a new version for Mexico City. As the piece has grown, each city has contributed a local bit, as well as pieces of the previous versions. "I like to take a section and bring it to other cities, like a relay," Emard said.

The Philadelphia version has the Montreal base, with a Mexican section as well as a six-minute segment choreographed here to Philly soul music, including the O'Jays' "Love Train."

In August, Emard returned to Philadelphia to prepare for the Live Arts opening. The dancers now had been merged into one large group at Penn's 1923 Arena rink, where the ice had been melted for maintenance and temperatures hovered in the 80s.

The dancers decided to wear red - Phillies shirts, shorts, sweatpants, tank tops - to welcome Emard back. Jai Wexler, a sign-language interpreter and yoga instructor in a flowing, sparkly unitard (with wings!), said, "Dancing is my soul's language," adding that if it weren't for a show like Le Grand Continental, "we never would be able to work with a choreographer" or the professional dancers involved.

But it works both ways, Emard said: It's rare for a choreographer or professional dancers to work with such a large group - or such an enthusiastic one.

"You receive so much from those people," he said. "Just being surrounded by people who are not professional, but they're there because they love it, they like to dance, is so refreshing to professional[s]. . . . We're so busy thinking about serious things about dance, which is OK, but why did we decide to be dancers is really simply because we liked to dance. We lose track of that."

VIDEO: Watch "Le Grand Continental" dancers rehearse: www.philly.com/legrand

Contact Ellen Dunkel at edunkel@philly.com

Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe

Le Grand Continental

4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday. Parkway steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Free, no tickets needed.

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