At the height of the AIDS epidemic, Pennsylvania Ballet was hit hard. A number of company members suffered or died from the virus. Compelled to do something, their colleagues rallied. They produced a special performance called Shut Up & Dance to benefit MANNA, a local organization that delivers nourishing meals and counsel to those infected.
The show became an annual event, and today it regularly raises over $130,000. This year marks the 20th anniversary. Staffed, choreographed and performed entirely by the dancers, the show is often a highlight for those who participate. “The atmosphere is electric,” says soloist Ian Hussey, who’s serving as production director for the first time. “It’s this roller coaster ride of emotions—you’re sad, you’re crying, you’re happy, you’re excited, you’re overjoyed. There’s the excitement, but also that realization of what we’re doing this for.”
Shut Up & Dance lets the dancers break out of their usual roles. “We're not performing for the company—this show is all our own,” says Hussey. “This is our one chance to really prove what we’re worth.” Corps member Evelyn Kocak is testing her choreographic mettle for the first time with a piece for the show. “Being on the other side of the studio, I’ve discovered how much complexity goes into creating a piece that as a dancer you’re not aware of when you’re just focusing on yourself,” she says. Despite how much she’s gained from the opportunity, Kocak underscores that her own growth is not the point: “Amazing things come as a result of Shut Up & Dance. But what makes it special is that it’s not about us personally or our careers; it’s that we’re giving to something more important than we are.”
This year’s show will be performed Saturday, March 24 at 8 pm at the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia. For tickets, go to mannapa.org.