Preview: Shut Up & Dance

Bjork, hip-hop and much more at this one-night-only performance to benefit MANNA

UPDATE: The location of the after-party has been changed from Voyeur to Woody’s. Please make note.

Every year since 1993, the dancers of the Pennsylvania Ballet have created, choreographed and performed Shut Up & Dance, a one-night-only show to benefit MANNA, a local nonprofit that nourishes people in the community living with life-threatening illnesses. On May 21, they’ll do it again at the Forrest Theatre (8 p.m.) where there’s a special VIP pre-party and show, followed by an after-party at the popular gay nightclub Voyeur.

Check out a gallery of photos from Shut Up & Dance‘s history here.

As the dancers practice this week for the big event, the Ballet’s Producing Director Jonathan Stiles tells us that audiences should expect a very fresh, modern program this year – all of which is created and performed by the dancers.

“I think this year’s show will have a real lighthearted feel,” he says. “We’ve been rehearsing during the day, as opposed to the night, more than the past few years – and I think that has affected the pieces.”

Stiles says many of the numbers were inspired by pop music. “Jermel Johnson has a hip-hop and theatre number,” he explains, “and Meredith Rainey – continuing his unbroken string of Shut Up & Dance involvement – has a piece set to the music of Bjork.”

Overall, 25 members of the Pennsylvania Ballet are in the show – that’s more than half of the dancers in the entire company. “Not only is every performance a unique experience,” says Stiles, “but the process of getting the show together is unique every year, as well.”

Now in his fourth year of producing the show, he’s watched young dancers go from Shut Up & Dance newbies to show veterans. “The dancers’ dedication to this event is inspiring,” admits Stiles. “You have to realize this show is put together entirely on the dancers’ free time, during and after a hard day of work for the Pennsylvania Ballet. Any dancer could look at the rehearsal schedule I’ve put up and say, ‘No, I don’t really feel like staying around for that today.’ But they don’t. They work really hard and put on a great show.”

One of the dancers involved this year, Edward Barnes, will be performing with Johnson in a piece choreographed by Justin Allen. “I think MANNA is a great organization,” says the 22-year-old Barnes (he was three when the benefit first kicked off 19 years ago). “I’ve done it every year since I joined the company. For the dancers, it’s important because it’s a show that’s completely our own – from the choreography to lighting, we are our own bosses and it’s great to be doing new work with our friends and colleagues.”

Follow what’s happening with Shut Up & Dance on Facebook and Twitter @shutup_anddance.

And for the enormous volunteer creative effort, MANNA is grateful, says Richard Keaveney, the organization’s executive director. “Shut Up & Dance is so important because it keeps MANNA rooted to our original mission of being there for people with HIV and AIDS,” he explains, “and it provides an opportunity to introduce hundreds of young people each year to the importance of food as medicine.”

In many ways, the show has become a tradition – particularly among many in Philly’s LGBT community. Keaveney says that’s one of the reasons the show is produced and performed in the Gayborhood each and every year with an after-party at a popular gay hot spot (ticket holders receive free admission to Voyeur for the evening after the show).

“It is truly a privilege to help other people by doing something you love to do,” says Stiles. “Shut Up & Dance was started by a group of Pennsylvania Ballet dancers trying to respond to the HIV and AIDS epidemic in some tangible way. While much has changed in the past 19 years, the desire of the dancers to help those that might be overlooked remains. And we all really love to perform, especially when there’s an after-party!”

Shut Up & Dance, May 21, 8 p.m., Forrest Theatre, 114 Walnut Street, 215-496-2662, ext. 115.