Becket —Just when you thought you knew something about dance, along comes Ephrat Asherie to blow that all to smithereens. Even though she’s a summa cum laude graduate in Italian from Barnard College, Ms. Asherie stretches boundaries and categories of dance, and in the process, redefines what dance is and what dance can do.
In collaboration with her pianist brother, Ehud, the world premier of “Odeon” brings together both music and dance traditions in new ways. Contemporary Brazilian composer, Ernesto Nazareth, incorporates classical, ragtime and Latin styles in a score written for piano, bass, pandiero (Brazilian tambourine played by the extraordinary Sergio Krakowski) and percussion. Unfortunately, the piano was over amplified, sometimes overwhelming and masking the bass and percussion.
Weaving though the dance, the music evoked a sense of theme and variations, where some of the repetitiveness of musical themes provided a platform for the boundary stretching movements and choreography of the dance.
And the boundary stretching in the dance was revelatory and exciting. After years of ballet and modern dance training, Ephrat Asherie became a student and aficionado of hip-hop and street dance. When we first saw her at the Pillow, she was performing with Dorrance Dance, and her sneakered hip-hop excursions into tap space felt both weird and right. Weird because we tend to think in categories and genres, and tap, after all, is a different genre from a different time. But it’s not a different place and not a different culture. Across the time difference, one can see the shared roots: intensity, improvised originality, joy in rhythm and movement and in the body as an expressive instrument, its shared African-American experience of making do with what you have, challenging convention and creating brilliance out of it. (And, of course, the same can be said of ragtime and jazz).
In Odeon, dancers wear costumes of simple tops over running pants and black sneakers. Solos, pairings and ensembles weave in and out of the performance, with improvisation and precision choreography intermingling, and sometimes hard to tell apart. Indeed, a challenge with incorporating an improvised form such as hip-hop into a mainstream performance repertory, is how to sustain the spirit and integrity of improvisation in a way that can be replicated in theater settings and sold to modern audiences. This tension is evident in efforts to bring improvised jazz to large stage settings, as with Harry Connick Jr. at the Tanglewood Shed, and is also a challenge to an innovator such as Asherie, bringing a street art to the Pillow stage.
Through movement ranging from slow and balletic to the nonstop kinetics of fast dance with inventive arm and footwork reminiscent of the African dance forms of dancers Linda Madueme’s and Ousmane Wiles’ native Nigeria and Senegal, to the astounding acrobatic athleticism of hip-hop let loose of all constraints of gravity and propriety, the most affecting dances were to silence, and to rhythms created by the company clapping and to the syncopations of Krakowski’s tambourine and Ephrat’s temple blocks. Here both the athleticism of the dancers and a purity of ideas could shine.
Ephrat Asherie’s ‘Odeon’ is on stage from June 27 through July 1 in the Doris Duke Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Mass. For information and tickets, click here, or consult the Berkshire Edge calendar where tickets, information and a map to the Pillow are also available.